27 Jun 2019 • Peter Maxwell
Ace Hotel’s new spinoff does mindful hospitality for those who hate buzzwords
The product of the brand’s in-house studio, Sister City sees Ace acknowledging that its customer base has a diversity of moods that go beyond the 'work hard, party harder' ethos. In response, the Bowery-based hotel marries a hands-off approach to service and a hands-on approach to design, creating a refuge for those who want to move to their own beat.
If you were to play word association with the Ace Hotel brand, you’d perhaps come up with terms like ‘hip’ (still remarkably accurate), ‘busy’ (often), ‘noisy’ (invariably), and ‘party’ (arguably the Ace mission statement). Few hospitality chains have influenced the sector as much as Ace, who quickly redefined the lobby as a social breakwater between transient guests and the local community. Soon every new boutique hotel had to have a lobby bar-cum-coworking-space. It’s notable, then, that the one word that seems to keep surfacing in conversation about Ace’s new spinoff – Sister City – is quite so diametrically opposed: ‘sanctuary.’
It’s also notable that, in a period in which New York has seen an unprecedented number of new hotel openings, some from major marques and under the creative direction of fêted hoteliers – see Ian Schrager’s gregarious Edition hotel in Times Square – it is this conspicuously quiet Ace sub-brand that again feels the most revolutionary.
This is the sort of hotel where you find yourself picking up a stool simply to admire its weight
What that means in practice is that the emphasis is placed squarely on reducing contact time. Guests could easily visit Sister City, located on the edge of the Bowery, without interacting with any members of staff. Contact is encouraged, however, with the property itself. The building has been outfitted by Ace Atelier – the in-house design studio – with an emphasis on craft and material. This is the sort of hotel where you find yourself picking up a stool simply to admire its weight, or smiling as you notice the kinship between the reading light in your room and the door indicator in the lift. Everything promotes (gently) a specific kind of attention. In short, it’s a hotel that encourages, and then rewards, slowness.
Here the lobby again sets the scene, consisting of little more than some well-appointed banquette seating and a selection of books curated by the neighbouring New Museum. There’s also a mini mart, though this one stocks kombucha and Bang & Olufsen headphones rather than Snapple and Wonder Bread. There’s also a self-service check-in. Pointedly, perhaps, ambience is provided by a lulling musical score that, whilst originally composed by musician Julianna Barwick, is continuously being redefined by artificial intelligence.
The hands-off approach continues upstairs. You won’t find a phone in your room, as interaction with the hotel is managed through your online profile, including ordering room service. Even that level of engagement is often unnecessary: if you want to grab the clothes steamer, fresh towels or more toilet roll, you’ll find them in way stations located along each corridor.
This leaves more room, psychologically speaking, for guests to centre themselves. But while other mindfulness-orientated hotel offers lean on classes and clean eating, Sister City uses the basic tenet of design. Here, tactility is placed at the heart of the interior treatment, specifically in the artful use of joinery, handiwork that consequently also draws your hand. Each layer of the building takes a different wood as its theme, from birch on the ground floor to cherry in the sleeping quarters and oak in the rooftop bar.
But while Sister City might be inward-looking, it’s not introverted
These materials are used confidently, forming thickset arches, palisade-like screens, desktops, bed frames and benches, whilst also panelling most of the social spaces. The designers’ mission statement references Shintoism and John Cage, and the ethos of spiritualism removed from orthodoxy certainly carries through. It’s a very different take on sensuality from that promoted by Ace Hotels, one that focuses the mind on your own body…rather than on those around you.
But while Sister City might be inward-looking, it’s not introverted. The industry term here is ‘optionality,’ in that, while the venue recognises a mindset that others often ignore, it doesn’t do so at the cost of all others. For instance, the ground floor also plays host to what is hoped will become a buzzy neighbourhood restaurant, while upstairs the Last Light bar offers some compelling views and a convivial atmosphere.
And that’s key to why this project works. This hotel isn’t for a different guest than those who might stay at an Ace-branded property. Indeed, it follows many of the same precepts in terms of scale, price and adherence to a singular design-lead vision. Rather, it recognises how the needs of those same guests have grown more complex over the two decades since Ace's establishment, especially as the attention economy has continued to make greater demands on our mental resources. Today’s guests want to move at different speeds, and Sister City understands how thoughtful design can act as an anchor that keep us, even if momentarily, in one place.
Hospitality brands have taken longer than other sectors to switch from demographics – read ‘age or income bracket’ – to psychographics – read ‘attitude or emotion’ – as a way of understanding their customers. Sister City shows the power of an established player thinking about how it can address alternative aspects of its customers’ mindset, even when they seem distanced from its core narrative.