Back in the Studio
Former film production designers Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer abandoned Los Angeles and the silver screen for their own New York design studio
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 3/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Some creative types seem to know what they want to do with their lives from the moment they're cognizant. Others, such as designers Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer, follow a meandering path.
The two met on location in Los Angeles during production of a 1994 Judy Davis movie, The New Age. Alesch was drawing plans and supervising construction. Standefer was the production designer. Her sets were a tour de force, partly because she borrowed 10 million dollars' worth of original pieces by artists such as Ed Ruscha and Sam Francis to dress the movie's principal location, a clean-lined house in the Hollywood Hills. The project was a foreshadowing of the duo's future—both professionally and personally.
There were no romantic sparks between the two at first, but Standefer—a bright-eyed, irrepressible native of New York—says she recognized Alesch as someone who could "put the vision on paper."
Standefer, a graduate of New York's High School of Art & Design, painted while at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and took art-history classes at nearby Smith. Alesch, born in Milwaukee, quit architecture school at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff after two years and then moved to Los Angeles to start his career.
Production design was a way for the two to share a fantasy. Standefer started enlisting Alesch to help her in her work, then took him on as her professional partner in 1997. Using their grandfathers' first names, the ' partners formally established Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors as a multidisciplinary design firm in 1999. While they never wed, their bond, both romantic and professional, became stronger than many marriages.
The movie business gave them opportunities to build quickly and in many styles. "For a long time we felt our background in film was not necessarily an asset," Standefer says. But a four-story, $4 million brownstone constructed on a soundstage for the 2003 movie Duplex introduced one of its actors, Ben Stiller, to the couple's earthy, handcrafted detailing. It was Stiller who suggested a way out, a new type of work that would spare Alesch and Standefer the heartbreak they felt whenever a favorite set was struck, obliterating months of work in the blink of an eye.
In 2002, during production of Duplex, the couple began expanding Stiller's Hollywood Hills cottage into a full-blown hacienda on three lots; they also redesigned his contemporary beach house in Hawaii. These projects led to generously funded commissions from other Hollywood royalty—Kate Hudson had Roman and Williams append a ramada of Egyptian woodwork to the back of the Los Angeles house she shares with her husband, Black Crowes lead singer Chris Robinson—and Roman and Williams's L.A. office grew to more than a dozen employees.
With the Hudson-Robinson house under way, Roman and Williams abandoned their L.A. studio and rented space in New York's Greenwich Village. "We came back home," Standefer recalls. "We're New Yorkers now." The new 1,800-square-foot office, with a current staff of six, is not far from the loft apartment where the couple had been living part-time since 1997.
The studio inhabits an old industrial building that has the gritty look of a set from NYPD Blue. The open, loftlike space retains its original tattered maple floors, and paint peels from the ceiling. Even newly added elements appear timeworn. Waxed steel plates are mounted on the walls to serve as magnet boards; the front doors are recycled from well used factory tables. The designers' love affair with decay dates at least to the abandoned printing plant they created from scratch for Griffin Dunne's 1997 movie Addicted to Love, starring Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick.
Visitors summoned to the offices of Roman and Williams are apt to encounter a battered chopping board ' heaped with seedless grapes and expensive cheese. Thonet side chairs surround the conference table, another repurposed factory item. Four vintage drafting tables stand amid quirky collections of vintage books, glass doorknobs, and wooden hands. "It's archaeological and organic," Standefer says. "You don't see a lot of curved Corian."
Both partners claim to have led similarly countercultural childhoods, but their private offices, enclosed by steel-framed panels of recycled glass, reflect some differences. "I'm the color person," says Standefer, whose office displays curiosities like a dried turtle specimen the size of a basketball. Other exotic ephemera sits on shelves built from second-grade walnut. "We love the knots," says Alesch, who, by contrast, has created a spacious traditional drafting room for himself. When the partners clash—and they admit to intense arguments—they seem to be battling for nothing less than old-fashioned honesty in their work.
Fortunately, Standefer says she and Alesch "share a kind of masculine aesthetic," and she lists influences that range from Christopher Dresser to Pierre Chareau—both men who chafed at times against Victorian norms. Which begins to explain the occasional dalliances with jet glass chandeliers, glamorous crystal thumb turns, and Nicaraguan tile. One of the firm's latest undertakings is a new Norman mansion in the Hollywood Hills. "We like making spaces regimented and a little formal," Standefer explains, "to have something to rebel against."