Sam Nazarian’s nouveau nightlife (Aston Martin magazine)

Dorothy Parker’s jibe about Los Angeles being ‘seventy-two suburbs in search of a city’ has been a truism for over a century, but the landscape is changing. The home of film and television is morphing into a different kind of influential cultural force, from the regeneration of Downtown and the expansion of the Pacific Design Center to the work of Michael Govan at the LACMA and the arrival of Jeffrey Deitch at the MoCA. Arts aside, no one has done more in recent years to give downtime in the city a provocative and distinctive look than Sam Nazarian. His SBE group includes four Katsuya restaurants, the haute dining rooms XIV and The Bazaar, three Hyde lounges and the SLS hotel in Beverly Hills. While his short-term aims have been to reinvent the leisure industry in Los Angeles, his vision is global, and he curates every design aspect of his growing empire masterfully.

Iranian-born 35-year old Nazarian has an acutely visual way of working. His home in the Hollywood Hills, sprawling across 6,000 square feet and cantilevered from a cliff face, embraces a multitude of fantasies of Californian living, from the Rat Pack to David Hockney’s Bigger Splash. His pool deck can entertain 200 guests, he has his own screening room complete with classic Cretor popcorn machine, and the panoramic view through floor to ceiling glass from his lounge evokes architectural photographer Julius Shulman’s most glamorous work. On one wall hangs a birthday present from Milton Glaser, the designer who created the iconic ‘I love NYC’ logo; it’s an LA version of the same piece but against a graduated tone of pink and grey. ‘Milton hates LA,’ explains Nazarian, ‘the pink is supposed to be a Playboy Bunny colour and the grey represents the smog.’

Nazarian, of course, loves LA. He’s hard-wired-in to its culture of celebrity. On the desk in his bedroom there is a framed picture of him courtside at a basketball game sitting with David Beckham. He’s appeared onscreen in The Hills and Entourage, playing himself. This is his milieu, and sets the criteria and parameters of SBE. ‘This city is home to 70% of the celebrities you see in the media every day,’ he says. ‘But it’s never really had a central heartbeat, like Manhattan or London. When I started this business eight years ago I looked at the world of design and LA was light years behind. I aimed to change that by bringing the right people here.’

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Nazarian’s enterprise is that the key Right Person for him was Philippe Starck who was commissioned to generate the bulk of the Nazarian Look. A curious choice perhaps – after all, Starck was firmly aligned with Ian Schrager and the Morgans hotels, and his brand of surreal wit can seem passé and horribly over familiar next to the likes of Marcel Wanders or Droog. ‘A lot of people questioned my choice of Starck,’ says Nazarian. ‘Many feel he’s over, but I think he’s just beginning. We’ve proven that with the SLS, XIV and Katsuya. We’ve given him the scope for much more creativity than he’s had in the past. A lot of those initial projects with Schrager were very low-budget.’

Starck’s SBE projects are anything but thrifty. The SLS hotel in Beverly Hills is intended to be the first in a chain to rival the Four Seasons rather than a louche, over-grown boutique stunt. It feels grown-up. Starck’s work has always been most successful with either a light touch (the Faena Hotel + Universe in Buenos Aires) or a grand scale (the Delano in Miami) and the SLS falls between the two. The hotel’s launch at the end of the 2008 may well come to be seen as the moment that the Starck aesthetic passed from iconoclastic to modern classic.

Nazarian has cleverly forced function to dictate the way the SLS works. It’s not all about the lobby. There’s an outdoor living room richly furnished with oversized plant pots and couches that look like they’ve been designed for a Sun King in Space. In a city of constant sunshine that lives outside as much as it does in, it’s a clever, flexible area: Aston Martin launched the Rapide here last November. It’s also a pleasant café in which to work on a MacBook and a practical place to wait for valet parking. The indoor public spaces are aggressively contemporary but also deeply plush and serene – the non-stop late 90s lobby party has been moved next door, to Jose Andres’ buzzing molecular gastronomy restaurant, the Bazaar (the most financially successful restaurant, in terms of profit per square foot, in the States). The guest rooms are slick but subdued, and without the baffling bells and whistles of over-designed utilities. The open-air rooftop pool sells the hotel on image alone: the cabanas and immense baroque-style mirrors that disguise the balcony structure are inspired and chic and guests aren’t elbowed out by twentysomething local hipsters in stupid little hats. There isn’t a pool “scene”, it’s for residents only.

Nazarian’s XIV restaurant, billed in foodie auteur terms as ‘…by Michael Mina’, has a stately feel. Starck has created a ‘European chatueau’, albeit one that combines elements of futurism with Versailles. It might be considered a gentleman’s club with a flamboyant penchant for Murano goblets. The most striking element of XIV is the exterior – the structure is a bold reductionist grey squared-off bunker with the restaurant’s name/logo grown neatly in green foliage beside the door. Nestled between the Chateau Marmont and Nazarian’s original Hyde nightclub – the quintessential bottle service lounge, where waitresses light sparklers and parade from bar to table to herald the popping of each new cork – XIV is designed to be a one-off, or at least the first in a very limited edition. Katsuya, conversely, has been conceived as a chain.

Executive chef Katsuya Uechi’s involvement in the project has brought gravitas to the cuisine, but Katsuya is branded as being ‘…by Starck’, the designer’s logo incorporated into the restaurant’s. These rooms are, perhaps, his finest interiors work to date: holistic, futurist zen-tinged spaces that make the idea of eating contemporary Japanese food exciting and glamorous and which don’t regurgitate any of the predictable Starck canon. You don’t feel assaulted by Alice in Wonderland kitsch or confused by the chairs, instead there are pared-down counter areas and quiet booths, and a palette that is all-white, with graphic wall-sized back-lit high-contrast, extreme close up beauty shots of geisha girls. It’s pop, but it’s appealing rather than grating. ‘We’ve created a brand by using the model of Nobu and then pushing the envelope,’ says Nazarian. More Nobu than Nobu? Maybe.

Nazarian is sticking with Starck, but not exclusively. A rocky economy necessitated a slow down of expansion plans in 2009 and right now the focus is back on nightlife, but with a typical emphasis on all things visual – a new club space, Industry, opened in March with an art deco influenced interior and an intent to capture ‘the spirit of the exclusive Hamptons lifestyle.’ He launched MI-6 last September with a ‘multimedia environment’ designed by Montreal-based company MomentFactory, best known for their work with Cirque du Soleil. Shortly afterwards, a branch of Hyde opened at Staples Center and another at ski resort Mammoth Mountain. Nazarian still has the immensely successful Abbey bar in West Hollywood in his portfolio, continues to keep one foot in Las Vegas (where he owns the Sahara Hotel & Casino and spends at least one night a week), and remains involved in film production and real estate. New York, predictably beckons, but he’s looking for the right project. He’s honing the SBE brands right now while planning to turn the Sahara into an SLS, as well as opening up another in South Beach, Miami next year. The ultimate goal remains, of course, to take his distinctively LA lifestyle product and to export it to the rest of the world. A little bit of Hollywood can go a long way.

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One Response to “Sam Nazarian’s nouveau nightlife (Aston Martin magazine)”

  1. Read more about Los Angeles high style in Mark C.O’Flaherty’s look at 100 years of the Beverly Hills Hotel:

    http://www.civilianglobal.com/features/100-years-of-the-beverly-hills-hotel-review/

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