While for some he may seem unknown, don’t be confused, he is simply low-key…he is wildly connected in the ‘street culture’ that so many of us subscribe too. His friends and connections are a literal who’s-who of the scene. But you won’t find any brash egos or stone-cold attitudes, Alex is super-laid back, generous, a wealth of information and insight, and again…fun as hell to just hang out with.
Alex invited Chuck and I to come stay at his Hotel, The Ace, after a very early post on THE BRILLIANCE! about The Ace, it’s overall cool vibe and it’s Kaws art work. We then received an email from an agency exec. who commented how he enjoyed our site and thanked us for posting The Ace as he just made a reservation and would have missed it without our post. To keep a long story short, I got in contact with Alex to let him know about this little situation and the rest is history…he not only agreed to an interview but put us up in Seattle for a weekend and showed us both his empire and the city with the utmost hospitality. The hotel was beyond what we expected and seeing everything he was involved in was one of the more inspiring things I have done. So check this interview, do some homework on Alex…and as always…act like you knew.
-Benjamin (Interview by Benjamin & Chuck)
THE BRILLIANCE! > Ace hotel 3 words, 5 secs.
ALEX CALDERWOOD! > Simple, basic, comfortable.
TB! > Now, standard explanation of ace hotel.
AC! > It’s a unique hotel instead of boutique hotel. Its like a small European, modern hotel.
TB! > I would agree. How long have you been taking reservations?
AC! > We opened in 99.
TB! > Was it finished already when you opened it?
AC! > We opened part of the hotel and built out more rooms later. Downstairs is the food area, laundry, breakfast, stuff like that.
TB! > How many rooms?
AC! > 28.
TB! > You have the $75 rooms all the way through $195 rooms, right?
AC! > Most expensive is $195… There are 14 that are traditional rooms and 14 that are more European style with shared bathrooms. There are no 2 that are exactly alike. Each one is somewhat unique, with a common use of materials and finishes.
TB! > From press photos I saw Kaws stuff in the rooms…
AC! > Right now there are a few artists…it happened spontaneously.. What happened was the last few days we were getting ready for opening party. Everyone felt good but thought something was missing. I had one of the smaller canvases I bought from kaws so I brought it down from home and hung it above the bed and thought that’s perfect. So we commissioned him to do more.
TB! > Were the Kaws ones done for the hotel?
AC! > Yes. Specifically done for the rooms here.
TB! > Was the thing in Rudy’s done for you guys?
AC! > No that piece was from a one man show, we bought it from him for Rudy’s. (Diesel ad). Its insane. Some of the other artists happened randomly though… like Perks he did an installation in room 124 while he was staying at the hotel. .... We’ve asked space invader, kostas, wk, and others to something in the future….
TB! > So, you also run a record label and clubs…restaurants, bars, barber shops, and of course the hotel. What kind of came first and at one point did you decide that it was going well…
AC! > We basically um, started with the barbershops. About same time we started barbershops I started throwing parties in warehouses, using djs from town.. At that time Seattle was more focused on rock, so myself and people running parties were more focused on things like jazz, hip hop, electronica.. So it was welcome. It kind of stood out. So for example we hosted the first Jamiroquai show in Seattle. We were part of the original people to start bringing that thing to Seattle. .. That continued to keep evolving over the years. We got asked to do private parties for companies…
TB! > Like all the PR, etc?
AC! > Yeah, the events, ad concepts etc.. Over the years we got more skilled in that area. Also tapped into the DJ culture. We got licenses of tracks from djs and started making compilations. All of that evolved to what is now Neverstop.
TB! > I think that’s interesting that Neverstop isn’t just a design house or whatever…just a full..you know..
AC! > Yeah, we work so many different disciplines. And hopefully we add a good visual aesthetic to each of those disciplines.
TB! > So the hotel came after this?
AC! > Yeah, my partners and I, have a love of travel and hotels. The idea of hotels has been in the air for last 10 years. It was something we wanted to pursue and started looking for locations. We came across this particular building, which was one of only old hotel buildings in Seattle that had not been converted into apartments
TB! > The real estate end of things…location location location…with a hotel, 6 years ago, how hard was it to find that location and has that area grown beyond what you expected?
AC! > Well from a real estate standpoint hotels have become a very hot category, you know…it makes it more competitive…for us it makes more sense to use an existing historical hotel verses building a new building. We would have to set a higher price point ,like the W, if we built from the ground up.
TB! > Eric Hentz was the designer on this?
AC! > Yeah, the way we work on our projects is very collaborative and hands on. It a design-build process. We worked with Eric on the finishes, room layouts and overall details.
TB! > What are some of the details you kept in mind for the creation of it?
AC! > Well for example… I hate when I get to my room and I have my cell phone, laptop, etc and there are no plugs, you know,.like, how an outlet will be taken up by the lamp and the alarm clock. Those are the kind of details we tried to think about and put into this hotel and hopefully future hotels.
TB! > The zoning, permits…what you thought you’d have to do versus what you actually had to do..did it all go according to plan?
AC! > We’re fortunate because w had experience w/ construction and zoning…so, going into it, we knew a lot of the limitations and planned accordingly. .you know, design around that. The hotel was always zoned as a hotel, so that made it easier.. We didn’t have to change too much. So we just worked within limitations that were already there. It went very smooth. A good relationship w/ city building department always helps. We’d ask, ” is this possible?”, and then work it out with them.
TB! > Why no bar?
AC! > Thought it would be too much to start this first hotel with a bar…in the future we will have bars…my partner Wade operates a number of very successful bars, so.its already in the partnership skill set, for sure in the future we’ll do that..
TB! > For first few months, how was the response? Was it accepted? Busy? How was marketing?
AC! > We were lucky, launched with a great impact. I think the one thing we were surprised was how positive people were… we had a great opening party with wallpaper magazine, .the editor Tyler Brule came out and hosted the party, all the fun seattle people were there… also, that same launch week, it happened coincidentally that Kim and David the editors of paper magazine were here, so they were our first actual guests. They were here for an art exhibit… It was just a really great launch, the whole thing kicked off well.
TB! > Now that you’re up and running 6 years in..did it exceed expectations?
AC! > Yeah for sure. Time magazine did a survey of the hotel industry, they were looking for the most innovative people in each category. They chose Jet Blue for an airline…. They chose The Ace for next innovators of the hotel industry. We never expected that.
TB! > I’m curious..there are no flashy signs, how did the word get out? Passing out flyers? Ha…
AC! > Ha. We received a lot of press though, we’ve been very fortunate with PR… Also, In the beginning, people came to just see the hotel you know, planning trips around it, the Seattle community has been very supportive and word just spread. The prices too, I think helped us. and it just got around that this new hotel was in the area and people wanted to come visit and stay.. It worked on a local level and international level.
TB! > What would you describe the clientele? What’s demographic?
AC! > We don’t look at demographic. It’s more psychographic. They could be 19, 20, 21…or 45. They’re usually just into a vibe or aesthetic or an uncomplicated attitude. We’ve had wedding parties to rock bands come through…but there’s always a core audience of cultural creatives, designers, ad agencies, people from fashion companies, but we still get a wide range, Its very democratic….
TB! > Tell us about the huge backdrops in some of the rooms and behind the front desk. What was the inspiration for that?
AC! > Again, came about spontaneously We love those photo murals…but the way it happened was, terry jones from i.d. magazine was in town doing an exhibition at ARO Space, we brought him out to do a exhibit of the first ID family issue. We were in the gallery space and at the last minute he wanted to cover the walls with “family” like wallpaper patterns, behind the photographs So I jumped in the car to this wallpaper store and while we were there I came across a section that had all these old northwest looking wallpapers. Photographically they are the original photos and have this awesome, kind of off white, yellow tint to the whole thing. So basically we just bought that, right off the shelf. These two companies make them…what’s so great is that they are imperfect, you know. They’re not all digital printed looking. The contrast with the saturated white of the rest of the hotel works. It was just perfect really. We got so many phone calls and emails about where we got that wallpaper, I’m sure that company has gotten some good business thrown their way.
TB! > Will you use them in future hotels?
AC! > Maybe, we want to use design details that are respective to the geography of the location of each hotel. In Montreal you know, we’d do something different than for example in Portland.
TB! > What are the next big plans for the Ace right now? What’s in the works?
AC! > Well, we are working on an Ace Hotel in Portland right now, we’re working with great local developers, it’s going really well. It will kind of be an evolution of what we’ve got in Seattle, We like to strip things down as bare as possible so that an “un -cluttered” quality will be there. It will feel airy and light, but still retaining a soulful, historical quality
TB! > Oh nice - So, the one I’m in right now is the one with the big spinning mirror wall and the three Kaws paintings. Is that one of the bigger rooms in the place? Will the Portland location be similar?
AC! > Definitely, its probably the most requested room actually. Also, there’s a room downstairs that has a shower behind the bed…it’s just a shower with a big piece of glass in front of it, literally as the headboard of the bed. It’s a very sexy room, but one of the smallest rooms too. Oddly enough one of the most requested.
TB! > So what other locations are you interested in?
AC! > Well, we would like to do more on the west coast, San Francisco, LA, Vancouver, New York of course, always, and someday far off, I think our brand would be good in Europe, cities like Berlin, Amsterdam…cities that are what they call ‘gateway cities’, like Paris maybe…Or emerging cities that are sort of cultural hotbeds like Montréal…we have had requests to do an Ace in cities as diverse as Little Rock to Dubai, but there are only so many hours in the day and you have to choose your battles. it’s interesting how information about a small hotel in Seattle travels around the world…right now our focus is totally on making the Portland hotel a success , who knows after that.
TB! > So when you start to expand, do you ever fear losing that attention to detail that is so important to the Ace?
AC! > Well, I think we’ve been very fortunate at attracting good talent and retaining good talent. it’s a matter of finding people who are really good at their respective expertise. Creating an environment that they want to work in and giving them a good platform to use their expertise. ...All the service people at the Ace are really dedicated , the maids, the front-desk, everyone. Rudys has been a great learning experience for us to draw on also, in terms of managing skilled labor and delivering quality services in multiple locations, we have about 200 employees in that company with locations in 3 cities. The Neverstop team provides great experience for us to draw on in terms of executing complicated projects, potentially in multiple geographies, and bringing them in on budget and on time.
TB! > 10 to 15 years from now, Alex Calderwood as a brand..the Ace…Neverstop…what will be happening?
AC! > Ha, hopefully I’ll be sitting on a beach. that’s a tough question really. I’m not sure. Maybe living in Paris.
TB! > How many hotels do you think you’ll have opened by then? Where will Neverstop be?
AC! > Well, my partner wade focuses on the day to day operations of Rudy’s, Making sure things are all running OK. Nasir here at neverstop fills a similar role. I focus on the hotel…we’re looking to open 2 hotels a year for the next 5 years.
TB! > So - what’s your favorite travel destination? US? International?
AC! > I’d have to say one of my favorite places to be is Portland. I love it there. Something really special going on there right now, it’s a little under the radarscope and it’s pretty inexpensive to live there. Lots of artists and musicians have moved there.. On top of that you have Nike, Adidas, Wieden + Kennedy, which bring a sophisticated international level of creativity to the community. What’s come out of that is support for galleries, restaurants, record stores etc…. part of the DNA of Portland is people really support independent businesses there more so than in any city I’ve ever seen. There are some fantastic record stores. Awesome culture there. Other cities..umm…New York is always on the list of course…its like my 2nd home. Montreal is a great city….. internationally, Tokyo is always inspiring. Um…last year I spent time in Dubai which is interesting on an intellectual level,...what interesting about it, especially if you’re interested in real estate, is that they’re basically creating an international city from the ground up. We’re watching it happen right now. Its not over a natural 100 years, they’re doing it now. Fast. You know, they really want to make it a hub or center of financial services. Entertainment, shopping , some people call it another Las Vegas.
TB! > Seems similar to Tokyo kind of, as far as what’s happening…
AC! > Yeah..its similar sort of. But the shopping malls in Dubai is really like the town square. You know, you go to these malls. They have all the brands, star bucks everywhere, but mixed with middle eastern culture, it is a really interesting clash of cultures.
TB! > Next up, kind of random questions, what’s your favorite brands?
AC! > APC is probably my favorite…the way they do everything is on point, ...of course Nike, they’re just so good at what they do. Its interesting they’re able to reach so many audiences at the same time. They speak to niche influencers at the same time as selling to people in Niketown. I think they’re one of the key brands. For sure…I love Volvo, but then again that’s a big northwest thing. Um, um…you know, I’m really waiting for one of the cooler car companies to make a stylish hybrid. The cultural creatives will be the first to adopt that. Sometimes sustainability gets marginalized because style is ignored. You know, the design community wants to pursue sustainable design by not choosing less but gaining more.
TB! > SO - It’s Friday night or Saturday night. or whenever. what drinks are on your tab.
AC! > Well i’m always out at the cha cha lounge…little bit of rock and roll and electonica…. In terms of drinks, either a vodka and soda or just light beer really… I’m not really a microbrew kind of person.
TB! > Yeah, they taste like acorns.
AC! > (laughs) Ha…Acorns… but yeah ...
TB! > Um…where is home to you? Where’d you grow up? Where do you rep?
AC! > Seattle you know, it’s my home. But I travel so much so I feel comfortable in other cities too you know.
TB! > Yeah Seattle actually to us feels like a really comfortable place. Very welcoming.
AC! > Yeah, there’s a group of people I guess now getting tagged as perma-travelers, they feel just as comfortable in one city as they do in another. Not really jetsetters, but more just…it’s like they’re constantly on the go. I think part of it is the enhancement of communication and the internet. I went to Berlin one of the first times a few months ago and once I hooked up with like minded people, it just felt like another home, I loved it.
TB! > Cool cool…so - any random thoughts? Just anything here…?
AC! > Interview’s over. Bad question. Haha. I don’t know though, nothing really on my mind right now we haven’t talked about!
TB! > What are your thoughts on THE BRILLIANCE? Why did you do an interview with us?
AC! > Well I just love the way we met. You guys wrote something about us which we didn’t know about. Someone read about it on the site, I think his name was Chris…and he sent an email to you guys saying thanks for posting about it and next thing we knew he reserved a room. It was cool. Just saw what you were doing, I love you guys aren’t just all about the sneakers but you’re posting about like…water. Haha.. You know. Just seems like when something like that (Chris situation) happens you should pursue it
TB! > Yeah, first thing we thought was this guy booked a room here..we’re being pretty effective, we need to get at the ace and hook it up!
AC! > For sure for sure. You know, for PR kind of things…there’s not a heavy process with us of like “call our publicist”...we’re very much low key in that kind of way..
TB! > Yeah for sure. One more thing you know, we just love how you’re doing things. Working with what you have, peoples talents…the whole package of everything going on here, from Rudy’s, ace, never stop. All that stuff, we just really enjoy it a lot man, its really cool.
AC! > Thanks man. It all comes down to the people and the details. The relationships. Really cool.
TB! > Cool.
AC! > Cool.
TB! > In the joint bathroom should I wear flip flops!?
AC! > Ha. Well you don’t have to…sometimes at night, the shared bathroom thing is all about hookups, you know..haha..kind of funny.
TB! > Some dude is brushing his teeth for like 30 minutes waiting for a girl to come in…haha.
AC! > Ha.
TB! > Ha…So anyways…
AC! > I’m going to get some water.
TB! > Thanks though Alex, we really appreciate the interview and getting us out to Seattle!
AC! > My pleasure, thanks guys.