Oct 30, 2018

Episode 3

Anda Andrei


Anda Andrei’s design personality is apparent in each of her properties, including her work for the Asbury Park development in New Jersey. She credits her collaborations with Ian Schrager, Philippe Starck, and Herzog & de Meuron for enriching her design sense, ultimately leading her to go out on her own. “I felt like I owed it to myself to give it a try before it’s too late.” It wasn’t an easy road for Andrei, who fled her native Romania and landed in New York in 1981 as an asylum-seeking refugee. But thanks to her tenacity, ambition, and confidence, she is one of the most interesting and compelling designers in the industry today.


Hi, I’m Stacy Shoemaker Rauen, editor in chief of Hospitality Design magazine. Welcome to our third edition of our podcast What I’ve Learned where I catch up with someone I truly admire, the fabulous Anda Andrei. In a very candid chat, she opens up about leaving her hometown in Romania and her coveted career working with such industry greats as Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck. She recently ventured out on her own and is now making a major impact in my home state of New Jersey where she is working with iStar to redevelop the beach town of Asbury Park, and I have to tell you the HD team recently spent a day at the Asbury hotel, and it is every bit as classic as Anda.

Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi. It’s Stacy Shoemaker Rauen. We’re here with our third podcast with the lovely, Anda Andrei. Anda, thank you for joining us.

Anda Andrei: Thank you for having me.

SSR: So the whole of the podcast are bringing in amazing designers and CEOs to talk about what you’ve learned, about your career, and how you got to where you are. We’re excited to pick your brain for a little bit. Let’s start with your childhood in Romania. You grew up in a household of architects, right?

AA: My dad was an architect, yes. My mom was also creative but not that way.

SSR: So was design always something that was part of your life or do you have any memories of design?

AA: Well, design was a part of everybody’s life there in a weird kind of way. Because we didn’t have anything. We had to make everything because we could not stand to not be fashionably dressed or have fashionable shoes. Everybody learned how to make everything from scratch as in clothes and bags and even shoes and furniture and pillows and covers and rags. I have to say that creativity gets quite amazing when you are forced to have to use it as opposed to just one thing to use it. So yes, we were nonstop making stuff.

SSR: So your mother must have been a very good maker of things?

AA: No, my mother not at all. I was. My mother never could sew. I was the one that decided that I have to be special. So I started making my own clothes when I was 14, I think, and it was always making something to try to sell to make money in order to buy more stuff to make more stuff. So it was this process. We were making like  Christmas cards and we were making all the time. It was like a studio in the house with different crafts.

SSR: When did you decide to make it a career?

AA: That was also pretty soon because of my father used to take me to his work, and I loved it. And you had to decide very soon there. Because university was free, it came though with a different kind of price. You had to compete. It was a huge competition to get in. They were very hard exams to get in. We were competing like 10 in one place to be able to make it, and if you were not getting in, there were consequences as well. You had to start studying at 15. You had to make up your mind and start studying because somehow the part of the exam was to do a little project. So somehow you had to know how to do a little project in order to be able to take the exam to get in that school. So at 15, you said, ‘That’s it. That’s what I want to do.’ It’s way too soon. By the way, I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a good way but that was the way.

SSR: And you said your father brought you to his work. What kind of buildings did he create?

AA: He was a head of a big architectural company, and they were doing big developments and I’m not saying that it was anything that I was in love with as far as what he was actually doing. Looking back, it’s funny, because now you realize that Brutalist architecture, it’s back in fashion. At that time, that was the architecture of communism and we never considered it so hot being there. Looking back now, it’s hot. But back then, it was not. So the inspiration was not from his work. The inspirations were the architectural magazines that he was getting because he was in a high position.

SSR: So obviously you got into school. Was it everything you thought it would be?

AA: It was fantastic. I have to say it was one of the best times of my life. I wish I could do it again and again. Of course, age has a lot to do with it. It was a huge amount of work. We were like working nonstop and there were so many nights of working and drawing and its six years of just work. But it was fun and interesting, and there was not one boring moment and there were always parties in between. It was perfect.

SSR: So you finished school, and is that when you moved to the States or did you stay a bit longer?

AA: No. I got to practice there for two years. I did two projects there before I left.

SSR: What kind of projects did you do before you left?

AA: It was a super important one: a post office. It was a post office and a park. From that point of view, I’m very grateful to that school for one very big [reason]. It was not specializing us. We were doing interior design and landscape design and urban design and architecture. So the fact that you were so rounded up gave you the option to do it all and that was very, very interesting and better than when you were zooming in at [something] at such an early age and studying only one part of it.

SSR: It gives you the whole perspective.

AA: Yes, and it’s very different when you study architecture interior design together as opposed to interior design as a consequence of somebody else’s architecture.

SSR: So you did the park and the post office and then did your whole family decide to come to the States?

AA: No. That’s a whole other story. That is a whole other novel of some sorts of how you get out. You wait for two years and it’s very complicated. It was not the whole family. It was just me and my late husband, and we left together and we kind of managed to land in another place that we were supposed to land. That’s another whole adventure by itself: How you wake up one morning in Rome.

SSR: I can’t even imagine.

AA: It’s pretty nice actually.

SSR: So you must have a love for Italy.

AA: Yes, we lived there for six months. It’s being in between lives that it gives you an incredible likeness because you know you cannot go back. You have no idea what’s ahead so it’s the only time in one’s life that you have zero responsibilities. Because there’s nothing you can do with yourself but just enjoy Italy.

SSR: There could be worst places I guess.

AA: Yes, but try to do it for $5 a day. Somehow it was very possible at that age and at that time.

SSR: So from Rome, you landed in New York correct?

AA: We landed in New York as refugees because at those times it was political and you came as a refugee, which means that from a certain point of view, it’s easier because they give you the Green Card and that’s it. You get going with your life. On the other hand, you land in New York in 1981, and it was actually very scary in New York. It was run down and bankrupt. The day before we left, we were actually in Capri, and you come from Capri and you land in New York and I said, ‘Did I really do that with my life? Why am I here when I could have been there?’ So it’s really tough. Very very tough. But then somehow everything works out in an amazing kind of way and you cannot compare the possibilities that were here compared to there.

SSR: It’s night and day between two very different type of islands. So you worked for Ian Schrager and were his right hand for years as his director of design. How did you come to meet him and start working with him?

AA: My first job was in Gruzen Samton Steinglass. It’s the only interview I ever had. It was a week after I came to America. I walked in their office and my friends that were here already said to try to go at lunchtime because they were just going to say leave the résumé with the receptionist, and we’ll call you. And if you go at lunchtime, you have the chance to meet some other people. So I walked in there at lunchtime and I said very, very loud ‘I want an interview,’ which obviously is not the way you go about asking for a job. So Peter Samton was crossing the reception area turns around and looks at me and said, ‘You want an interview, I’ll give you an interview,’ thinking it was very funny the way I just expressed myself.

Basically at the end of the interview, he gave me the job and that was the only job interview I’ve ever had because I started working there. It’s funny because they were doing jails and hotels since it’s the same program. Actually, in today’s terms it’s really the same because the rooms are so small for both and at that time, they were a bit different. So I ended up doing hotels and three years into it, I worked on the Grand Hyatt in New York. Two years later, Ian hired Gruzen to do the Royalton, and they assigned me because I was weird enough and I spoke French. So they said, ‘We have the perfect job for you. You will be a perfect match.’ Six months into it, Ian convinced me to come and work for him and that was that.

SSR: You’ve worked on some of the most iconic hotels, the Royalton, the Delano, etc. What was it like to help build these new boutique hotels that were redefining what hospitality was? What was your time there like? It must have been exciting.

AA: It was more than exciting. You couldn’t wait to get to work the next day. It truly was because it was so fun and so creative and the people that were working on these projects, and who I got to work with, were the best in the world. It’s really like winning the Lottery for many points of view. It was a nonstop adventure. Was it hard? Yes, it was incredibly hard. Because when everybody considers that 100 percent is not enough and it has to be 110 percent, it requires a lot of sacrifices in a way, but it never felt like a sacrifice because I loved so much what I was doing. So that was an amazing ride.

SSR: You said some amazing people that you worked with, like Philippe Starck. But what was it like working with him and who were some of the other creatives that you were able to work with that taught you some interesting lessons along the way or opened your eyes to a different way of design or process?

AA: Well, Philippe was at the beginning and probably the best lesson I learned from Philippe is how every hardship and every problem becomes an opportunity. That’s the best way I can put it. I did learn that the most creative and talented people are the ones that find the easiest way, and for them it’s not big deal to change or to redesign or to come up with a different idea. Any problem becomes a challenge, ‘Oh, I can solve it, and out of it something much better can come out.’ That’s one part of Philippe. And the other part is the incredible joy of life that he has that translates into making the best possible public spaces. That’s another thing you learn: People who don’t know how to enjoy life, cannot create places for people to enjoy life. And designers who are so into themselves and everything is just in their head and they don’t like to socialize, to drink, to eat, to hear music, and to play, usually they can do beautiful spaces but not places for people to have fun. So that was Philippe.

John Pawson was incredible because I always said you run from room to room like water. The way they flow from each other. It’s incredible, so beautiful. Then who else? Herzog & de Meuron. Amazing. The discipline. The fact that everything has to be reinvented and nothing is the same as before. Every project is different, and every project is another discovery and another kind of universe itself. They don’t take from one to another, which most designers do take because they develop a language and at the end, it becomes an easy way to work within your language. They don’t. Each project has its own language and that is quite spectacular. And the discipline is beyond; it’s like a Swiss watch.

SSR: That’s a good way to describe it.

AA: Who else? Julian Schnabel. That was not easy at all but it was also an experience trying to read an artist’s mind and trying to translate that in architecture. It’s a very difficult process but again, it’s throwing yourself a huge challenge. How do I extract from this mind? Something that translates into architecture and doesn’t look like a set design. It’s difficult.

SSR: And that was the Gramercy, which is beautiful.

AA: That was the Gramercy, yes.

SSR: And working with Ian, you must have learned a few things.

AA: Never take no for answer. That’s a first. Really never take no for an answer because it’s always another way and the perfectionism that comes with that, the intensity that comes with it. Sometimes you think, why do you have to? It’s not really a cure for cancer, it’s design. But at the same time, if you don’t set the standard so high up, how do you move the needle and how do you make progress and how do you change the world? So you kind of have to, and only Ian had [that personality]. I mean never give up. Never give up.

SSR: Then you did all these amazing places and redefined a lot of what hospitality is today, especially on the F&B front and on the hotel side. Why did you decide it was time for you to take everything you’ve gathered and learned and go out on your own?

AA: This is because you want to look back at your life and you don’t want to think ‘Oh, my God, why didn’t I try it?’ That’s really the only reason why. It was great. My last day with Ian was the day when EDITION London opened. I’m very, very proud of that project. It was the EDITION brand. It’s fantastic. But somehow I felt like I want to see what happens when I do it on my own. So it was mostly that I felt like I owe it to myself to give it another try before it’s too late.

SSR: You’ve had some amazing projects even since it’s been four years on your own?  The 11 Howard is one of my favorite hotels in New York. There is just something when you walk into that space that kind of transforms.

AA: I love the 11 Howard. First of all, I love it because it was so short. We did it in 16 months, which is unheard of from beginning to end. It was an enormous challenge to try to do that. And, it was a Holiday Inn.  The constraints were: ‘Don’t touch the walls. Don’t make the bathrooms any bigger. You have 16 months. You have a tight budget. You cannot do a lobby on the ground floor. Here you go.’So, it’s a puzzle that’s definitely fantastic to try to solve. And Aby Rosen was great to work with and Space Copenhagen that I brought in were fantastic to work with. I’m super proud of 11 Howard because it’s down to earth and it’s simple and it’s very casual and the same time, it’s chic. It’s not on steroids. It feels like a small hotel, though, but it’s not a small hotel. Everybody thinks there are 50 rooms. There are really 250 above your head. But it’s feels like a little boutique place. We reinvented the front desk, which was very hard to do. It was done mostly because of the zoning regulations. See what I mean by every challenge comes with an opportunity. So to try to do a different way of checking in. From the uniforms to the shampoo, everything is great about 11 Howard.

SSR: I love how the second floor is kind of moody and then you go upstairs and the rooms are open, and there’s color, and they’re pretty.

AA: You feel protected because for me, New York, as fantastic as it is, when you go to your place, your little nest, you should feel protected and taking care of and pampered a bit by the interior. I mean, it’s nice when the staff pampers you too. But there is something. The aggressiveness of New York somehow goes away when you are up in your little cloud, in your bubble.

SSR: Being from New Jersey, I’m super excited about what you’re doing in Asbury Park and working with iStar to help re-gentrify this amazing town and bring back some life and hospitality to it. How did you even get involved with iStar and can you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing there?

AA: Well, I knew Jay [Sugarman] from many, many years and his wife Kelly Behun, who is a very talented designer, used to work with me many years ago, and then she opened her own place so we go back quite 25 years back. Jay met me on the street and said I think I have a perfect project for you and took me to Asbury Park and you kind of fall in love with the place because you realize it has such an incredible soul that’s still there. It has history. It has art. It has music. It has architecture, which is very rare to find. When he said I have 35 acres and all these projects to do, it felt like a much more higher reward than doing a hotel.

So now I have a little town to kind of put all the pieces together. A hotel, at the end, it’s the rooms and then it’s the public space and how you make people have fun in 200 different ways and or be quiet or be able to relax or work. So now you have a much bigger map to do all that. We always like to do high and low in a way, and we try to never do a restoration of one of the old places to a new place or a down and dirty hotel into a super elegant hotel. We like to be able to keep the balance and not ruin the place. On top of it, you change the life of everybody who lives there, which any hotel in the city that I have done, yes, you have a new group of people that works there. But at the end of the day, they could work in a lot of other places than 11 Howard or another hotel in the city. In Asbury, that’s not the case. In Asbury, you totally change the life of the people who are living in the town. There are total work opportunities. There are new businesses that open because of that. There are new stores that open, new restaurants, so the impact ishuge.

SSR: And you’re hiring local people.

AA: Most of the people are almost all local. Every six months, we start a new project in Asbury. We did the hotel, did the first apartment building, which was shared by Oppenheim, which was fun. We did [Asbury] Lanes. Now, we are opening the Ocean Clubwhich is the biggest of all. It’s pretty impressive, and it’s mixed use and it’s a second hotel with 135 residences and a huge amount of amenities. Then we started working on a beach club that is super fun. Then the next thing is a loft building so we can have more of an artist community moving there. It’s always the next. I’ll be 100 and still working on Asbury Park.

SSR: And Asbury Lanes, it was an old bowling alley that you brought back to life.

AA: It’s more than that. Any normal developer would have teared it down. It was really the old lanes, which was fun, but they couldn’t heat it, they couldn’t air condition it. The roof was falling apart and nobody could play anymore so I don’t know what was left. And we said no. Jay actually said, we are going to bring it back to life. So without tearing down, we rebuilt it. It’s a new roof and heating structure and new systems. We added the diner, and we added the music venue that was an improvisation in the old days. I was very proud of myself actually thinking back from 1981 when I came here as a Romanian refugee architect and the night when Bruce Springsteen went on the stage in Asbury Lanes to open [it], which is the essence of an American venue with bowling and with Bruce on the stage playing, it felt like a very perfect accomplishment, like a bookend to coming to America and being able to do the essence of America. I never expected that. Asbury Lanes did that for me.

SSR: Do you ever look back at what you’ve been able to do and pinch yourself a little bit?

AA: I never expected I’d be able to do such amazing projects and to be part of changing the hotel industry and changing the standards for so many things. It was always fascinating because we were opening a hotel and you were working through the model room and prototypes of furniture and then two years later, you realize that furniture is one of a kind and then it’s 20 of a kind, then it becomes a very fashionable thing in a super high-end store. And then it’s everywhere. So see how two weeks of hard work becomes a huge thing 10 years later. It becomes quite a cycle.

SSR: So basically you were ahead of the trends.

AA: Well, Ian changed the hospitality industry by all means and then for a good 10 or 15 years, I always said we were the only girls in town because it was no competition. All the other brands and all the other chains, they were so behind and then one day everybody was saying boutique hotels and we were getting this weird calls that said, ‘I want to a boutique hotel. Could you design one for me?’ It was just like you would buy one. I was like “Yeah, sure, I will send you one.’

Then everybody started doing it, and everybody started studying what we were doing. In a way,  a lot of caricatures came out of it, which I don’t necessarily think were good. A lot of hotels became overdone and the design became ridiculous sometimes in all honesty. And so in your face and so taking over your life as opposed to letting you enjoy where you are. At the same time, if you look today at the hotel industry, some of the project are so incredibly incredibly beautiful and well done and perfect. There are always new innovators that come who are pushing the boundaries and it changes. Then it also changes because of financial reasons. Let’s face it, I always believe that if the project is not successful financially, it’s just not successful, period. From that point of view, we were very successful because we were so different. But then if you just copy, then you might not be successful and when everybody does it, you are definitely not successful. And then the rooms have to be all very small or very large; it keeps changing. It’s never stopping.

SSR: You received the Platinum Circle honor last year and the photo that just is ingrained in my head is you standing in the pool of the Delano with one of the old cell phones that were massive attached to your ear. For me, it was a very a memorable moment because I could just imagine what was happening at that time in the industry. But is there one project or something that you’ve done that sticks out in your mind?

AA: The Delano for sure. It was the hardest one I’ve ever done. It was really the hardest one. It was like in one of these epic, classic novels. The building was fighting you, the nature was fighting you. Everything we were building during the day was falling apart in the night. We had stuff happening at the Delano that never happened in any of the other projects like the sprinkler giving up in the middle of the night a week before opening and the whole lobby being flooded. Entire ceilings collapsed. The Delano was brutally hard. And there were moments when you doubt you are going to make it. It’s like a marathon, and you feel like this is it, I can’t do it. It took me a year to be able to go back and toenjoy it because it was so hard to give birth to that one.

SSR: It’s almost like you had PTSD.

AA: Yes, yes, a little bit. But then anytime I went back, it felt like this moment of magic when you walk in and it [takes] your breath away. It really does. Since most of them were changed, I try to stay away because I don’t want to have a critical eye on the changes so it’s better to stay away and have them remain in my mind the way I want to remember them, which is sometimes better.

SSR: It must be hard to go in and see something that’s been changed after you know all the the ins and outs.

AA: Sometimes it’s good that they change, don’t misunderstand me but it’s okay, I don’t need to see. I can see the other places.

SSR: When you travel, do you try to see everything?

AA: Before Airbnb became fashionable, I always rented apartments when I travel so it was not at all the way it is today. But I always felt that if I stayed in hotel, I’m working. So for vacation, I’d rather stay in somebody’s apartment because then it feels like I’m a local and not a tourist. This being said, I do try to see what’s new everywhere because with some hotels, you learn so much out of it. But at the same time because you do that for a living, you end up saying ‘I don’t like this. I don’t like that. You’re on vacation, girl. Relax.’

SSR: Don’t turn over that chair.

AA: Exactly. I do that. I go to the room. I change the furniture, like let me move in. I call downstairs. Can you send five white sheets so I can cover some of the furniture? It’s ridiculous.

SSR: So what’s next for you and your firm? How big have you grown now?

AA: I’m trying to collaborate. It’s my new way of working. Because I do have two people that are working for me more or less fulltime. But depending on the projects, like joint venture with different companies,  it’s much nicer because if you need five people, you have five people. You don’t need them, you don’t. And we have different ways of arranging that. So from that point of view, since I started so late my intention was not to grow and become a big firm. That was not my dream. I’d much rather take care of the big picture and not the execution though I cannot help myself, which is problem. I find myself screaming at the construction site as opposed to not going at all. But I cannot help myself. I’m trying to stay small. I can’t talk about it, but there’s a big project that I’m contemplating to start in Brooklyn and maybe another one in New York. I’m trying to balance it. I don’t want to become too busy because if it becomes 10 projects at the same time, it gets too much. I try to keep it to four or five. In Asbury, it’s always two or three so I have room for two more. That’s the way it goes.

SSR: That’s always the hard balance, right?

AA: It’s a very hard balance always. But you have to fall in love. I fall in love with a project, I do the project. I don’t fall in love with the project, no matter what they throw at me, I don’t do it. I’m lucky to be in that position. I take work only because I love the work. I don’t take work because I have to take the work. I should knock on wood for that.

SSR: Is there something you want to do that you haven’t done? A dream project?

AA: When the hotels came about and the inspiration, I remember Ian saying, it’s also an oceanliner. You have the rooms upstairs and downstairs, you have all these amazing places where you spend time. The library, the bar, the concert hall, the gym, the swimming pool. The apartment buildings, they used to be like that in the old days and are back to copying this as their new way of selling apartments since the competition is so fierce. And they’re doing more and more amenities because you might need a smaller apartment. Then they keep saying, well, you don’t need a house in the Hamptons or you don’t need a house in Asbury now, because you have a swimming pool where you live, and you have the gym where you live, and you have all those things that you normally would like to have in a country house. So it is a reinvention again of the apartment building, which is always very interesting because anytime you try to change the bones, it’s an opportunity to create something new. And that is a lot of fun. So, I like that idea a lot: How to rework the apartment buildings so they’re more like hotels.

The lines are crossing. The way the workspace has changed, the way the living spaces have changed. I also think it’s very nice in a way that the new generation prefers smaller places. There’s something right about it. Because, not so much Manhattan, but definitely the homes in this country became bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. Like who needs six bedrooms and 10,000 square feet for two people? They never meet. It’s like the symbol of not wanting to be together as opposed to wanting to be together. So it’s kind of nice that the new generation likes having less and not more, less objects, less kind of baggage in their space, and how you design that for them becomes very important.

SSR: And it becomes an interesting challenge.

AA: Exactly. How do you get everything in and how do you proportion things the right way? Because you look at new developments, this obsession with en-suite bathrooms. It’s great to have en-suite bathrooms, but is it so great to the point that the bedroom cannot have a bed or the living room cannot have five people being in it but every bedroom has a bathroom? It’s a a line that the proportions are right or not so right.

SSR: The good new is you’ve had small rooms in previous hotels.

AA: It’s so funny. I’m thinking how ahead of the time the Paramount Hotel [was]. The rooms were all so tiny, and then the Hudson came about, and the whole rule was don’t touch the walls, don’t touch the bathroom and everybody was like, ‘How can you have a room of 200 square feet? It’s unheard of.’ And look at today. But I don’t know how long this trend will last as well because how many hotels can have very tiny rooms?

SSR: What are you paying attention to?

AA: I find that there is also a level of very high-end taste that’s not addressed in a way. I find that the super high-end hotels, which cater to a very small group of people but they are very successful with high rates, they still do things by the rules and the demands of the parents of the generation that today are incredibly rich in their early 30s. So everything is done for their parents, not necessarily for them so I don’t know when the new luxury for them will come about. There are places but not so many.

SSR: Interesting. Well, it remains to be seen.

AA: It remains to be seen.

SSR: Well, thank you so much for being here, Anda I think it’s a good place to end our wonderful conversation, but I always love catching up with you.

AA: Thank you for having me.