ONE REBEL’S CAUSE: MATTHEW GRZYWINSKI OF GRZYWINSKI+PONS

The Nolitan Hotel, New York
The Nolitan Hotel, New York

‘Clichéd as it sounds, travel is still my number one, no-brainer inspiration factory,’ Matthew Grzywinski spells out to me. Matthew puts the Grzywinski into Grzywinski+Pons, the New York-based architecture and design practice led by he and partner Amador Pons; and travel is a salient ingredient in the duo’s work, hotels comprising a significant portion of their impressive portfolio. New York’s Hotel on Rivington, The Nolitan, and Boro Hotel; London’s Urban Villa … different sides of the pond, hotels united by an obsession with materials, quality, light, and crisp, uncomplicated aesthetic.

Graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 2000, Grzywinski and Pons founded their studio in 2003; a quick start in an industry that isn’t known for its young guns. ‘In the US, after architecture school you’re supposed to pay your dues by working for other practices for a couple of decades. I think we both, respectively, were a little too impatient for that.’

And here we have it, folks, our first insight into Matthew’s inner rebel.

The Nolitan Hotel, New York
The Nolitan Hotel, New York
Hotel on Rivington, New York
Hotel on Rivington, New York

‘Our shared disinclination to follow the traditional route for — well, just about anything — was probably the first thing that led Amador and I to go into practice together. We’ve always felt the need to forge our own path, while trying to ignore the pitfalls of ignorance and arrogance — and, though it can often be the long way around, we’ve also stumbled upon great shortcuts too. This perspective isn’t always smooth sailing, but it’s kind of perfect for disruptive thinking and innovation. When you’ve never been content not to do something for yourself, it also fosters resourcefulness; which helps in making the best of a tight budget, or turning municipal constraints into design opportunities.’

Without wanting to get too hung up on the ins and outs of architecture and design, it’s important to understand the spirit of the Grzywinski+Pons style: ‘we definitely approach every project with a fresh perspective and an open mind — frankly we would get bored if that wasn’t the case. When I do have an opportunity to step back, though, there is some connection between all the work whether we were conscious of maintaining it or not.’ Now Matthew might hate me for pointing this out, but that connection is an evident one, whether or not each project has its singular feel.

But this is not a bad thing, no — their aesthetic stamp is not a Versace-like flurry of Roman decadence, nor is it a journey through the space time continuum to an otherworldly Zaha Hadid project; the G+P way is an ode to uncluttered urbanity, an unpretentious celebration of restraint and purity, where materials and respectfulness of context are overriding considerations.

Boro Hotel, New York
Boro Hotel, New York
The Nolitan Hotel, New York
The Nolitan Hotel, New York

Expect exposed concrete, and leather or cork, pallet wood and hand-scraped oak floors, zinc panels, luxurious fabrics, ceramics and blackened steel; materials that bring with them an overwhelming sense of authenticity, of honesty. Materials are the anatomy of the G+P style, but guests and experiences are the anatomy of hotels. We talk a lot about the need for the industry to introduce design, and culture, but what are the considerations of those bringing that to the table? ‘I think the most sensitive aspect in hotel design is getting the mix of local or contextual influence right,’ Grzywinski tells me, ‘remaining authentic and, I guess, respectful without feeling throttled, or subscribing to prescriptive norms.’

‘Hotels are often the setting for significant experiences in people’s lives,’ he continues, ‘holidays, special events, love affairs, even business travel to a degree … so it’s a privilege to be a part of that in some fashion. We love hotels,’ the designer boldly declares, ‘we like to approach them as a hybrid of the aspirational or fantastical, balanced with the more pragmatic and comfort-level considerations of residential work.’ But what does that mean to the guest? I push him on what it is he is looking for from a hotel: ‘I think on some level I am always looking for somewhere beautiful or inspiring to stay. I often like to stay in hotels that are done very well, but perhaps in an aesthetic very different than mine. It’s like having friends that work in science, or medicine, or law — you get to live vicariously through someone else’s experience or, in this case, someone else’s taste. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, a hotel stay can be horizon-broadening.’

120 Allen Street, New York
120 Allen Street, New York
Urban Villa, London
Urban Villa, London

Which leads us to a subject I’ve often touched on here, that of experience being the single most important factor for this new wave of international traveller; that of local culture permeating each and every area of the hotel that you come into contact with. ‘It’s certainly an aspiration of ours.’ Matthew confirms when I prompt him on G+P’s vision for aligning design, art, and culture with a hotel’s overall ethos.

‘We like to walk the line where it is still an inclusive experience for guests, and ideally does something simultaneously for the neighbourhood. I think good hotels do that well — they aren’t just a tap draining the soul out of a place for people to come and consume. In a modest sense, at least they can be places for cultural exchange, a two-way street where the community can benefit from the travellers as well. Sometimes a hotel — like a cultural institution — can be a lightning rod to crystallise the creative output of a place, so that it’s available for visitors to appreciate and, in effect, that process deepens the sense of identity in a place from both perspectives.’

Boro Hotel, New York
Boro Hotel, New York
120 Allen Street, New York
120 Allen Street, New York

And what is a hotel to an architect who travels for necessity? How does it shape the mindset of someone who is charged with creating the spaces we occupy? ‘With more international work, and lots more time spent travelling for business of late, it has been instructive with regard to how, as architects, we might positively affect a business traveller through design. Obfuscating the clear divide between business and leisure when one is away — even when down time is short — is something that resonates with me. The hotel presents an opportunity to shake off the harried and often compromised lifestyle one thinks one must lead after the initial excitement of travel has worn off, force feeding a little of the glamour or novelty back but, again, in an authentic way.’

Clearly besotted by hotels and travel, I want to know if Grzywinski is happy drawing the line at hotels when shaping the experience of international travellers. Why stop at the end destination, what about the transport hubs that get us there?

‘There’s something great about the machine-like quality of those spaces; like flow charts or an assembly line. But they are also places where people are leaving or rejoining loved ones, feeling excited or melancholic, bored or frantic,’ he continues, with an endearingly romantic inflection. ‘ They are very human places, too, and that quality perhaps is seldom celebrated. I think there is an opportunity to draw on that amazing juxtaposition. Very few other spaces can be so monumental and so intimate.’

So there we have it: a traveller at heart, committed to shaping our very individual experiences. Romantic, with a touch of melodrama. But is Matthew Grzywinski a rebel?

‘I might be the very wilful, child version of a rebel.’ He confesses. ‘But respectful. Certainly some very fundamental drive for complete self-determination and a heavy skepticism for authority was inculcated in me from before I can remember.’ He might not embody the recklessness of James Dean’s Jim Stark, but this is a Rebel WITH a Cause; G+P has given this dreamer an opportunity to write the rules instead of playing by them. And, for that, Matthew Grzywinski, I salute you.

Urban Villa, London
Urban Villa, London
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James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.