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Alex Calderwood grew Ace Hotel into a global phenomenon by first understanding the emerging Gen X market in Seattle during the early 1990s.
With so much discussion in the travel industry focused on Boomers versus Millennials, the Gen X crowd in the middle always gets overlooked.
For those of us born roughly between 1965-80, our biggest contribution to society was being the pivot between the age of reason and age of irony. We didn’t know what the big answers were back in the 1980s-’90s, but we knew it wasn’t misplaced loyalty to a rapidly globalizing corporate America.
People called us “slackers.” We invented the reply “Whatever.” Looking back, we were trying to deconstruct life in the 20th century by refusing traditional notions of status and success. Kurt Cobain and the Seattle grunge scene became our new ideological compass, and the temporal nature of the times—a feeling that nothing could be relied upon or fully trusted—compelled a new generation to question everything.
Ace Hotel is an entirely Gen X phenomenon because it deconstructed the traditional urban hotel model with the launch of Ace Hotel Seattle in 1999. Most of what we consider Millennial trends in hospitality today, placing a priority on personalized, local and authentic travel experiences, began with Gen X and a handful of innovative hotel groups like Ace.
During the early ’90s, Ace Hotel founder Alex Calderwood was living in the thick of Seattle’s booming grunge scene, working as a music promoter and vintage clothing seller. He passed away last month at the age of 47. Since then, the amount of social media attention is unprecedented for a hotel owner, especially one with only five hotels. Why is that?
Calderwood didn’t regard himself as a hotelier. He viewed himself more as an entrepreneur and “cultural engineer,” dating back to his club gigs in gritty Seattle bars, which eventually evolved into hosting upscale parties for Nike and Microsoft. The admiration for Calderwood stems from his ability to engage with and inspire people from all different social backgrounds and economic classes. The world also always loves an underdog with big ideas, a wild streak and rebellious hair.
“He imbued in us a mutual faith in our shared ability to realize and manifest meaning in the world,” reads the In Memoriam post on the Ace Hotel blog. “This faith is the underpinning of all experimentation, and Alex instilled it in people effortlessly. He was a punk anti-capitalist in the truest sense, in that he encouraged the unwise allocation of human resources to risky ventures that took no heed to consumer research. His gestures were about instinct, and he made us all believe in ourselves, and make better work, by quietly requiring us to believe in our creative wolf-senses.”
Probably the best story about Alex Calderwood to date is He Was Never Afraid, written by a long time friend.
The story recounts a time when Calderwood’s manager Caterina deCarlo asked him why he was meeting with this weird guy he met on the corner who thinks he has an idea. DeCarlo explained, “He just made time for everyone. He saw interesting ideas in the most uncommon or unpredictable places. He was just super generous with his time; he wasn’t hierarchical about it.”
Another reason for so much attention heaped on Calderwood is Ace Hotel’s utterly unique design, which has come to define the Ace Hotel experience more than anything. Who puts a camper trailer by their pool like Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs?
A great in-depth story characterizing the Ace design vision is this Monocle piece discussing the importance of thorough research into a building’s history. Calderwood delved into the most minute details of hotel construction, spurred in part by his father who was a contractor. He couldn’t tell you his bank balance but he could tell you the complete history of the windows he chose for a particular hotel.
Calderwood was also militant about partnering with local designers and suppliers, long before it came into vogue.
“Where you stay says much about who you are,” he said. “Who wants to stay in a city hotel that isn’t connected or engaged with the local areas and communities?”
The Ace design story begins in 1992 when Calderwood and his friend Wade Weigel opened the first of 17 retro Rudy’s Barbershops. The vintage design of Rudy’s honed in on the post-war, all-American barbershop experience where men from different backgrounds could gather and get a haircut/shave at a reasonable price. Rudy’s, though, provided modern haircuts in an era when professional men were beginning to spend more effort on personal grooming.
At Rudy’s Barbershop next to Ace Hotel New York, bare light bulbs overhead illuminate unpainted industrial tables with bare metal legs running the length of the wall-to-wall mirror. There is nothing extraneous or contrived, the vibe is old school, the stencil fonts are new, the music is folksy, and the staff is chill, hip and completely professional.
The template for Ace Hotel had been drawn, both in terms of design and appealing to a surprisingly broad clientele. The lessons Calderwood learned between Rudy’s Barbershop and Seattle’s club scene, working with everyone from GAP employees and struggling artists to white collar professionals and tech nerds, informed his transition into hotels.
Don’t Call Me a Hipster
When Calderwood, Weigel and their friend Doug Herrick opened Ace Hotel Seattle, they did so on a hunch. They believed that enough people would spend $65 for a room with a shared bathroom inside a restored flophouse in a dodgy part of downtown Seattle because they wanted to be close to the city’s arts and music scene.
“We put a deal together, jumped into the project with both feet, had absolutely no idea what we were doing, and through instinct came up with something fresh,” Calderwood told BlackBook in 2009.
By that time, both independents and large corporate chains were experimenting with boutique hotels but they were primarily targeting the luxury and corporate markets. Calderwood & Co threw their hotel together with a string and a prayer, relying on Calderwood’s innate ability for bringing people together from all walks of life.
That’s why he never gravitated toward the “hipster” label, and wasn’t in love with people referring to his hotels that way. He found the term contrived, limiting.
“We don’t view ourselves as just catering to a sort of bleeding-edge audience, or a bleeding-edge hip audience,” he told the New York Times in 2011. “It’s the whole combination, or mix I think, that makes it all human.”
Calderwood also relied on his background in vintage clothes sales to work with distressed, overlooked materials that could be purchased to furnish the hotel for next to nothing.
“He saw what you could do with material that nobody else wanted,” Amit Shah told The Seattle Times in November, who hired Calderwood out of high school to help run his clothing shop.
Referring to a time when Calderwood used materials from a Boeing surplus store to create fixtures for the shop, Shah said, “He always had a desire to come up with something new…. He was an entrepreneur and knew how to entertain, but more than that, he was always willing to talk about what the new thing was. He knew how to get to folks in their 20s and 30s.”
Much has been written about the turntables in Ace Hotel guest rooms and old typewriters in the lobbies, and how local artists were hired to decorate the walls with paint, chalk and vintage street signs, among other things. Calderwood created a Gen X aesthetic that earned such cult-like applause that it was satirized in Portlandia’s “Deuce Hotel” video.
Those were more Calderwood innovations. Few hotels used local artists to create wheat paste art above guest room beds. And the phrase “residential-style accommodations” wasn’t common either in the hotel industry in 1999. Calderwood designed his guest rooms as if you were sleeping over at a friend’s house, albeit a friend with much more eclectic design tastes than most people.
Calderwood also revered the stripped-away essential in everything, like his spare metal tabletops and bare bulbs in Rudy’s Barbershops.
For example, from the previously mentioned New York Times story:
“This is an industrial lamp that you would buy for, like, your garage,” Mr. Calderwood said. “This is off-the-shelf from a company called McMaster-Carr, and I just love it. It works. It’s solid and it’s not fussy.”
And there, in a lamp, you have the essence of Ace aesthetics. It’s not just that it represents retro cool. It’s also highly functional—indeed, purely functional. McMaster-Carr is an industrial supply Chicago firm that makes U-bolts, sprockets and 480,000 other products.
Today, this non-fussy, industrial-chic, vintage/retro, hipster-y, culturally-hip, well-educated, artistic soulfulness in hotel design isn’t all that unique. Alex Calderwood made it a thing over a dozen years ago, delivering a hotel experience that Gen X travelers could call their own. A hotel that made you, for a short period of time, a better you. A you you wanted to be. A more educated, cool and creative you.
That was the allure for Gen X. They were rebelling against the corporate machine alongside a Seattle club kid with a Sideshow Bob haircut, a beat up hotel and an unwavering struggle to create something wholly personal and original.
Ace Goes Global
Following Seattle, Ace Hotel opened in Portland, Palm Springs and New York. What makes Calderwood’s passing even more shocking, Ace is presently undergoing its most ambitious expansion in its history. Ace Hotel London Shoreditch opened in September inside a restored ex-Crowne Plaza hotel. New Ace Hotels in Los Angeles and Panama are presently taking reservations beginning in January.
The Ace PR team has been on a bit of a self embargo over the last few weeks regarding interview requests, waiting for all of the media attention surrounding Calderwood to settle down. Skift is planning a follow up story for early 2014 focusing on the new properties and how Ace Hotel is adapting its business/design models for the global stage.
Greg Oates covers hospitality/tourism development and travel brand media. He has participated in 1,000+ hotel site inspections in over 50 countries.