I recently had the pleasure of spending a weekend in Palm Springs during what may be the perfect time of year there—as comfortable at noon as at midnight. One of the highlights was a stay at the new Ace Hotel, a small, boutique hospitality chain that was born in Seattle with the goal of filling a niche for low-budget, high-design accommodations that would appeal to the creative, urban set. The hotel's Pacific Northwest roots are evident in the new Southern California location, but the Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs is also unmistakably regional in its design.
Set against the backdrop of the dry desert hills, the Ace's white buildings are an unpretentious makeover of an existing, rundown roadside motel. The rooms sit around a central common space with two pools and an event hall, and in a former Denny's on the corner of the property are King's Highway and The Amigo Room, the hotel's restaurant and bar. The rooms, which range in price from $109 for a Simple King to $999 for the Ace Suite, could be characterized as Bedouin tent meets skater chic, curated by the world's best flea market scavenger.
The Ace Palm Springs was designed through a collaboration between LA-based company called Commune and the Ace's own design team, Atelier Ace. They approached the project as a curatorial endeavor, commissioning a number of artists and artisans from southern California and the Southwest to piece together the design elements. The long list includes custom screenprinted duvet covers from Freecity, art prints by Evan Hecox, handcrafted wood furniture by Alma Allen, and instructional signs by The Date Farmers (including the map below). I asked Commune co-founder Roman Alonso a few questions about the process of creating the Ace Hotel & Swim Club Palm Springs.
Give me a little background on your work and on Commune. Who is involved, where are you based, and what's the premise/mission of your company?
We are an LA-based design company founded about 5 years ago. There are 4 founding partners: Pam Shamshiri, Ramin Shamshiri, Steven Johanknecht, and myself. We handle graphics, architecture, interiors, images. We work on a wide range of projects: retail, hospitality, residential, branding. Our approach is holistic; even when we are handling one aspect, whether it's just a retail concept or an identity package we look at it from all sides—the space, the graphics, the marketing goals, the PR, and so on. Our backgrounds and our staff are quite varied and unconventional for a design company so our approach and work tends to take place outside the box.
I heard that the Ace used to be an old Howard Johnson hotel. Is that correct? What was it like before you undertook the redesign?
Yes, I believe it was a Howard Johnson and a Westward Ho; the restaurant was a Denny's. The place was a total wreck. To start it was painted the ugliest possible yellow and green, the interiors were sub-standard motel/lodge style (moldy carpet, ugly wallpaper et cetera), and there were squatters living in it.
Tell me about the design concept. What were the influences and how did you pull them together?
The Ace's urbanity [as a brand], the American Southwest, camping, communal living, California artisans, 70's desert movies....we threw "M.A.S.H", "Billy Jack" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" into a blender. The glue was Ace—their vibe and style.
The Ace originated in the Pacific Northwest. Having spent several years living there, I definitely got a hint of Portland and Seattle, especially in the Amigo. How do you feel the design was influenced by the Ace's NW roots and how did you bring southern California desert into the mix?
The vibe you are feeling is Native American and those roots are in the Northwest as well as the Southest, and might even keep running down into Mexico. There is a lot in common between a totem from the Northwest and an Aztec one—its more of a vibe and an intent than a style or design. The color palate for the project was definitely born at the Ace in Portland—all that army green—so that was a huge influence everywhere, as well as the idea of bringing in artists and artisans into the project. The art work in Portland has a more urban vibe, at the Ace Palm Springs they are all California or Southwestern artists and their work reflects that.
The room design seems to follow this sort of "highbrow-lowbrow" trend, wherein the quality of the experience is not dictated by opulence, but by a curated approach to affordable style. How do you curate low-cost, salvaged, and vintage objects into a cohesive space?
We don't worry about it—if we like it and it feels right then it is. There are no rules really. The concept was for you to feel really 'free' to be yourself and enjoy yourself at the Ace, to feel at home. The only way to achieve that is through freedom, so we didn't follow any conventional rules of interior or hospitality design. The rooms needed to function and feel good without being fussy. If the item met those requirements and somehow had a human hand to it then it worked into the scheme.
Can you tell me a little bit about a few of the artists who were commissioned to collaborate on the design?
These guys are all friends of Commune and Ace. Most knew of Ace when we approached them and they signed up instantly; they wanted to be part of a design that spoke to their sensibilities, a place where they would all want to stay.
I noted a number of items in the room I stayed in that I loved, including a lot of the small details like the coat hooks, the pull-over robes, and the throw rugs. Where did you source this stuff? Is each room unique?
They were all sourced from all kinds of different vendors we've worked with—our office did a ton of research—and some of the vendors were Ace's too. We pulled together our resources. The rooms generally have the same details but for example all the rugs are different and there are found and vintage pieces in every room. We purchased over 1000 pieces of vintage and found furniture for the hotel and we really made an effort to find it all in the area.
Palm Springs definitely carries an association with retirement communities and golf courses, but places like the Ace and some of the new cafes outside of the town center have a very different feel. Do you think Palm Springs may start draw the 20- and 30-something urban hipster set?
Palm Springs has always been a great escape from Los Angeles. There is great hiking and climbing and nature that is accessible and easy to enjoy. There just hasn't been a place to stay that appeals to a young urban set with a certain aesthetic and budget. Ace fills a huge void that is not only for those staying at Ace but also for the community. There are plenty of cool people and artists living out in the desert, full- or part-time, who are really happy to have a place to hang out that looks and feels like Ace.
I had a sidedish with my dinner at The Amigo Room that was one of the best things I have ever tasted. "Corn-off-the-cob with cotija" should be famous! Can you tell me a bit about the concept behind the restaurant and bar and their menus?
We didn't have much to do with the food itself, but in terms of the restaurant design, the idea was to respect the heritage of the place but create a diner that was upgraded and made cozier—in a way to celebrate the fact that it was a Denny’s and the comfort that a diner brings in terms of atmosphere and food, but cooler, more grown up.
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