Hospitality innovator Ace Hotel blazes a new trail as it turns 20

Kelly Swadon and Brad Wilson
Ace Hotel’s chief brand officer and partner Kelly Sawdon and president Brad Wilson in the theatre of the group’s LA property, restored from a 1920s movie palace. Opened in 2014, the 182-room hotel is housed in the Spanish Gothic-style United Artists Building.
(Image credit: Maggie Shannon)

Two decades ago the Ace Hotel Group and its founders – Alex Calderwood, Wade Weigel and Doug Herrick – re-envisaged hospitality for a new millennium. Ace disregarded many of the tenets of traditional operations: favouring idiosyncrasy over uniformity, focusing on communal experiences, energising public spaces, and ultimately applying the kind of brand-building principles that were more commonly associated with jeans than hotels. The ‘hotel as lifestyle’ idea is now common currency but, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ace’s independent spirit was both a challenge to the major players and something to be studied and assimilated. Now, with 1,718 rooms across 11 properties (including newly launched sibling brands, Sister City and Maison de la Luz), it is an influential force in the sector.

Ace’s consistent shirking of convention is a reflection of the brand’s unconventional beginnings, of course. The first Ace, in Seattle, was arguably more social enterprise than business endeavour. With just 28 bedrooms, the property was intended to provide an affordable base for the founders and their friends – primarily gigging musicians. From a commercial perspective, there was nothing by way of blueprint or established model. Calderwood had previously established Neverstop, an ‘experiential agency’ that pioneered guerrilla marketing and pop-up concepts, and in many ways Ace Seattle was another project to be appreciated on its creative merits.

Ace Hotel Kyoto interior

Ace Hotel Kyoto: the group’s first Japanese property, Ace Hotel Kyoto will open in late 2019 in a 1920s telephone exchange building overhauled by Kengo Kuma, with interiors by Commune Design. 

(Image credit: Stephen Kent Johnson)

‘He was not necessarily a hotel visionary, but a hospitality and cultural visionary,’ says John C Jay, consultant to the Ace Hotel Group and long-time friend of Calderwood. ‘Ace was based on a democratic gathering of interesting people. Alex’s background was not in architecture, but rather the art of bringing eclectic and creative people together.’

In a period when hotels were defined by tier pricing, standardised amenities and name recognition, Ace’s success came in translating the loose notion of ‘community’ into a new product proposition. It was the first to reframe the hotel as a neighbourhood hub. But while Ace was considered pioneering, it was hardly a significant player in terms of bums in beds. Its real growth spurt began in 2007 with the opening of Ace Portland, but its expansion has largely been in the US, with openings in New York, Palm Springs, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Chicago. It broke out internationally with Ace London in 2013 – tapping local firm Universal Design Studio to oversee the project. Known for its retail and office spaces, the studio hadn’t previously tackled a hospitality project; it was another example of the group’s efforts to seek out those unencumbered by established hotel practice.

‘We approach design in a deeply curious and intuitive way, seeking out people with the same willingness to experiment within creative collaborations,’ explains Kelly Sawdon, chief brand officer and partner at Ace, who joined Calderwood’s Neverstop in 2000. ‘We view each property through a new lens, which has taken us down unexpected and interesting paths, like putting record players in the rooms, working directly with local artists and craftsmen and opening venues unique to each city.’

London has remained Ace’s only international property for six years, but late 2019 will see the milestone opening of Ace Kyoto. While Calderwood passed away in 2013, bringing Ace to Japan is the realisation of one of his biggest ambitions. Jay and the architect Kengo Kuma have long been discussing potential locations.

For Ace, Kyoto is Japan’s ‘cultural epicentre’, rooted in creative dynamism and with a rich tradition of craftsmanship. It also embodies something of the outsider spirit, much like Ace itself, and Kuma and the brand’s frequent interior collaborator Commune Design have realised a version of Ace that straddles Japanese restraint and a more freeform worldliness. A historic 1920s building, designed by Tetsuro Yoshida and originally the city’s telephone office, meets a dramatic new build inspired by traditional wood grid systems. A central courtyard will host a dense urban garden, exemplifying Ace’s commitment to community spaces, but in a distinctly Japanese style. Indoors, paper lamps, futon-like seating and austere lines reflect the design vocabulary of the region – but the signature Ace elements remain, such as record players in the rooms.

Ace Kyoto will arrive at a time when the hotel industry at large is increasingly segmented. The likes of Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International, Accor and InterContinental Hotels Group have diversified their businesses – attempting to corner distinct markets with individually conceived brands that speak to differing audiences, with varied price points and identities. And Ace is responding.

Bedroom at Maison de la Luz, New Orleans

Maison de la Luz, New Oreleans: the first hotel in a new series from Ace, with interiors by Studio Shamshiri.

(Image credit: Stephen Kent Johnson)

The recently opened, 200-room Sister City in New York is a stripped-back new spin-off, offering ‘lean luxury’ – forgoing the inessential to reduce rates, while still delivering an appealing stay. Guest rooms are compact and design efficient, yet neighbourhood restaurant Floret and a rooftop bar provide cool gathering spots. While Ace ‘invites the city in’, Sister City is described as a ‘recharging station’, more functional base than immersive experience. Occupying a former Salvation Army building on the Bowery, it has echoes of the original Ace Seattle, which was previously a halfway house. Cities such as LA, Copenhagen and Tokyo are being touted as possible future Sister City locations.

At the other end of the spectrum, Maison de la Luz sees Ace dip its toes into the luxury market. Designed by Studio Shamshiri and with 67 suites, the concept is a Southern guest house come to New Orleans’ Warehouse District, in a former annex of City Hall.

While guests at Sister City may recognise something of the Ace DNA, Maison de la Luz is a significant design departure, with billowing curtains, gilt mirrors and golden chandeliers. Ace has partnered with Paris-based Quixotic Projects – the operation behind Palais de Tokyo’s Les Grands Verres – on the hotel’s bar, housed in a former law library. The Living Room lounge will be strictly guests-only. It’s a brand concept intended for characterful, even romantic, destinations, such as Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Paris.

Maison de la Luz, New Orleans marble floor tiles

Maison de la Luz, New Orleans: the 67 suites include rugs in collaboration with Christopher Farr and custom marble floor tiles (inset).

(Image credit: Stephen Kent Johnson)

In establishing these new sibling brands, it may seem that Ace is following in the wake of others, but president Brad Wilson is quick to impress that, as ever, this is more about carving their own path. ‘We think about our projects within the context of the places and the people we care about, rather than through an industry lens,’ he says. ‘Our focus is not on competitors but instead on opportunity. We think more about the people who stay with us than the industry.’

After all, many of the new brands from the so-called heavy-hitters are arguably Ace-adjacent, and the group will continue to be viewed as a trailblazer. The adoption of Ace’s affordable, design-led model has unquestionably shaped others, but for Wilson, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. ‘We have been lucky enough to hit the right notes so far and the industry started to pay attention. We’re humbled that others have been inspired by Ace,’ he says. ‘I think we always share our genuine admiration for the history of travel, while imagining new ways to experience it, and we are happy it resonated with others.’

Sister City, New York bedroom

Sister City, New York: Ace’s other spin-off, Sister City, launched this year in New York; in-house team Atelier Ace designed the 200 rooms for refined efficiency, including bed frames with tucked-away storage.

(Image credit: Brian Ferry)

Rooms for change: how Ace inspired a new wave of hotels
As relevant today as in 1999, the Ace Hotel Group has given rise to several generations of hotels inspired by its alternative approach. In particular, the opening up of public spaces as welcoming neighbourhood hangouts – destinations to meet, eat and increasingly work – has reverberated globally. The lobby reigns across The Hoxton’s seven locations, while at Amsterdam’s Zoku, the lounge spills into rooftop terraces and conference rooms.

Then there’s the democratisation of design and a sense of place. At Generator’s 14 ‘hostels’, the offer is rooted in the culture and attitude of each location. New York’s Made and Arlo hotels both feature intrinsically local events programmes. Even Marriott (the largest hotel group in the world) is tapping into a more independent philosophy: its Moxy Hotels offer ‘living room inspired’ lobbies and include a Yabu Pushelberg-designed Times Square flagship with a tattoo studio and barbershop. 

As originally featured in the June 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*243)

For more information, visit the Ace Hotel website, the Sister City NYC website and the Maison de la Luz website