Roman & Williams Take Manhattan, And Everywhere Else

A new book pays tribute to the married duo behind New York’s chicest design projects. Andrew Belonsky takes a look at their work and the motivation behind it

You could call it design by stealth. Slowly, without huge fanfare, the married duo of Robin Stendefer and Stephen Alesch have been reinventing the look and feel of one of the world’s most iconic cities: New York.

Perhaps you caught a glimpse of it as you were sipping your martini in the austere lobby of the Ace Hotel in midtown Manhattan, or as you strolled across the floor—studded with copper pennies—of The Standard Grill in New York’s ever-bustling Meat Packing District.

Those fashionable hotspots are among dozens of projects that have turned Roman & Williams—named after the designers’ grandfathers—into the most sought-after designers in the country.

“Our projects are an expression of the aspirations of the people who will use them, how they want to live, love, work, be with their families and friends,” the duo explain, via email. “Those values will never go out of style.”

Ten years of literally remaking the scene has given birth to the inevitable monograph, Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors, published by ritzy imprint Rizzoli. Most of the sumptuous book focuses on the couple’s most high-profile works.

The throw-back glamour of The Standard hotel’s Boom Boom Room, a hotspot overlooking Manhattan where models, movie stars, artists, and executives helped rekindle the spirit of Studio 54, sits alongside the bohemian interior of the Flatiron District’s Ace Hotel.

A chapter on the Facebook cafeteria, which they designed, highlights the couple’s blend of “depression-era rigor” meets “60s-era rebellion”.

But the most revealing components are the images from within Standefer and Alesch’s own homes: a West Village apartment brimming with macabre antiques, like mannequin hands and butterfly collections, and a Montauk beach house, where a taxidermied turtle sits on a tree root refashioned into a side table and Alesch’s surf boards rest comfortably next to an artist’s easel.

That site doubles as a laboratory for their creative endeavors. “Out of this sincerity and authenticity… has come something that has been very powerful for us professionally,” Standefer says in the book.

Of all the glowing adjectives used to describe Roman and Williams’ work, that rather tired marketing trope, “aspirational”, is probably the most common, and it’s no surprise to discover that they met and began working together in Hollywood—a city where aspiration meets ambition, and dreams are made.

Standefer, 47, had moved from New York to LA, when he met Alesch, 46, who had been living there for years. They began working together designing movie sets, including for The Age of Innocence and Zoolander, both projects that allowed them to stretch their skills to maximum effect; those films are nothing without their elaborate sets. (Ben Stiller, who directed and starred in Zoolander, credits them with “giving birth to an important part of the millennium’s design culture.”)

If Roman and Williams are synonymous with architectural design today, it has much to do with the sense of authenticity they bring to their projects. That’s a loaded word, of course, since authenticity has become such a manufactured commodity, but the duo is careful to clarify how it plays into their work.

“Being authentic is just about what we love—about not succumbing to trends, fashion, or irony,” they say. “It’s simply a connection to the present moment.”

In order to agree to a project, Stendefer and Alesch require three elements to be in place: integrity, an inspiring location, and, most importantly, a brave client. “Be patient and be brave about where you look and be prepared to go deep to find things you love,” they write in their book.

So far, at least, there’s no sign that they’ll run out of patient and brave clients any time soon. For big cities like New York, with their capacity for endless reinvention, that’s good news indeed.