Oct 27, 2020

Episode 51

Roger Thomas, the Roger Thomas Collection


Industry legend Roger Thomas, the designer behind such iconic Las Vegas mainstays as the Wynn and the Bellagio, details his entire career—from first meeting Steve Wynn to taking his work across the globe and starting his own product line. Full of anecdotes from his stories history on the Vegas strip and beyond, the endlessly charming Thomas reflects on his career while offering sage advice for the creatives dreaming up tomorrow’s future.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Roger. Roger, thanks so much for joining us today.

Roger Thomas: Thanks for asking me, Stacy. It’s great to see you.

SSR: It’s so good to see you. It’s been too long. How have you been? How have you been riding everything out the last seven plus months, call it?

RT: I’ve decided to look at this as opportunity, and to respect all of the problems that are happening. And I find when I do that, that I’m much better at handling it. We started the first four months of COVID in Venice while we were beginning the renovations for our new apartment there. Had to return because of visa issues to a project here in California. We’re getting that finished. Our new home in Las Vegas finished a month and a half early. I think that’s the first time that’s ever happened to me. Nothing happens by mistake. I’ve been here, but I’m just treating it with great respect. There have been extreme advantages. For instance, I have not had so much as a sniffle since February. My health has been terrific. So I’m enjoying that.

We’ve had a lot of fires in the California area, the Southern California area, affecting both our home in Northern California and in Las Vegas. And so those are just clues that I’m supposed to close the doors and find things to do inside because I have air conditioning filters and I’m grateful for that. And so I draw, and I’m working on some new collections for various partners. So that’s been terrific, too.

SSR: That’s awesome. Well, there’s always a silver lining. I’m glad that you found it. All right. Well, we’re here to talk about you. Let’s start at the beginning. Did you always know that you wanted to be a designer growing up?

RT: Well, yes, I knew from the time that I was about seven or eight that I was going to be an artist or a designer. Before that I was going to be an ichthyologist, mostly because grown-ups found it so cute for me to say the word ichthyologist. I was enchanted with aquariums. But by the age of eight, I found that my favorite times, my happiest times were when I was drawing or playing with paints or working with my hands with clay or something else. And I started really concentrating on that because I was going to be an artist.

After finishing my education and having been a sculpture major, a ceramics major, a painting major, a textile major, a metal major, I found that what I really did well and what I was doing during the summers of my college was making environments and that I now knew how to manipulate all of the various projects that go into environments.

And finally, I ended with a degree in art history and the particular part of art history that I’ve always loved is the history of buildings and the history of the paintings and sculpture related to those buildings and interiors. So it’s pretty much been a natural course.

SSR: Has that training, being a trained artist and that history of design, how has that influenced your career in your aesthetic, in conceiving all these different design environments?

RT: Well, it’s greatly influenced it because I look to objects of art or the experience I get learning from an object of art to inform or to inspire the room I’m going to do. When looking for the inspiration for the feeling that I want when you walk into one of my spaces, I usually think of a similar feeling that I’ve had while looking at a painting that involved sometimes not even an interior, often just a figurative work, but it had the sense of joy or mystery or drama that I wanted to convey, and then analyzing why that happened in that particular painting.

It also might be the memory of walking into a great building or a great room and remembering then what components in that room caused that emotive experience to happen. I might look to a painting for the color scheme for a room. In fact, almost always, I can relate any coloring of any environment I’ve done to a particular painting. It has informed everything I’ve done. I was never educated in interior designer or architecture, except in the history of interior design and architecture, and I practiced it. It’s what I did for summer jobs. So I’ve been doing interiors, including drawing them, since I was 16.

SSR: What were some of your summer jobs?

RT: I only had one summer job. It was a serial summer job. There was a great interior design firm named Yates-Silverman. And they were, at the time, the key interior designers involved in hotel casino resort design in Las Vegas.My father knew the principals of that firm well. In fact, they were the inheritors of another major firm, the first firm to be the principals in hotel casino resort design Parvin Dorman, also a Los Angeles design firm. And my father had actually served on the board of Parvin Dorman because Albert Parvin would often trade his design fee or a portion of his design fee and sometimes even the furniture purchase for points in hotel casino properties. And my father was in the financing of those hotel casino properties, so they came to know each other very well and my father served on his board.

So that was the family connection. I’ve always followed a route of nepotism for all of my employment. And that was a route of family connection that got me a summer job. When I was 16, I had to drive from Newport into Beverly Hills and my pay, and I suspect my father was actually paying, it was kind of an internship. I was paid about $10 less per week than the gas cost of getting me back and forth. And I did that every summer until I graduated from college.

SSR: That’s amazing. And where did you go to college again?

RT: Fortunately, I started my arts education at Interlochen Arts Academy in Northern Michigan. That was my high school and the first place I went where what I did had currency. So I really flourished there. I went from there for a few months at Boston University on invitation, which helped because it let me test out of a lot of the academic requirements. And then I went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, which is the art department for Tufts University, finally graduating with a diploma from the Museum School and a BFA from Tufts.

SSR: Okay. So you spent your summers then in the LA area?

RT: Yes and I had to drive. So I would drive every end of school year from Boston to California. And at the beginning of every year, I would drive from California back to Boston, taking a different route every time with a black and white Russian Wolfhound. It was an adventure.

SSR: I’m sure it was. That’s amazing. Tell us a little bit more about your family. You were born and bred in Las Vegas. What  was your experience like growing up there? Obviously your dad helped you with your first internship, but did your mom or father have any sort of this artistic talent that you have gained?

RT: Well, I was almost born in Las Vegas. My father moved the family there when I was three, I was born in Salt Lake City. And yes, they both influenced it greatly. I think the greatest influence my parents had, their gift to all five of their children, was that you should do whatever you’re passionate about. They never directed us in any preconceived direction. If asked, they had ideas. I never asked. I always had this passion for art and design and they encouraged it and supported it. I was always allowed to pick the school I wanted to go to, how I wanted to live. Their job, they felt, was to support my passions and that worked really well.

My father was also the first banker to lend money to hotel casinos. And so as such, I lived a life of, of privilege in that I had access to all of those hotel casinos, when the family would go out to dinner. I thought it was normal for a kid to go to Frank Sinatra to celebrate his birthday. I didn’t know that that was completely unique. So that was a blessed kind of experience in growing up, knowing what the casino resort industry was before I entered the arena of designing it.

SSR: For sure. After school, what did you do? What was your first job, first entry into this world of design and art?

RT: Well, I like to say that I’m on my third job or that I just retired from my third job. So when I graduated from Tufts, I went back to Las Vegas because the family was involved in building a new main branch of the bank. It was the first high-rise office building in downtown Las Vegas. It’s now the Bank of America tower. And there were three floors that were all being done specifically for Valley bank of Nevada. And I was hired to be the liaison with the interior design firm, whom I had worked for every summer for my education, Yates-Silverman, and the family and the bank. To watch it, to watch for problems, to ease the communications and to advocate for whatever the bank wanted me to advocate for in the management of the bank. And so I did that.

At the same time, I started a small interior design firm with someone I had worked with during those summers who had moved to Las Vegas, named Sally Miller. We had a firm called Miller Thomas. It was a disaster. We didn’t make a single cent, but I learned a lot about clients being right all the time and how to try and go out and find a client, and I got some good experience.

Then Charles Silverman asked me to open the Las Vegas office of Yates-Silverman. That was two years out of college. And I did that. And I did that for about eight years, when one evening at a Nevada Ballet Theater board dinner, Elaine Wynn and I were both on the board, and there was an annual dinner for directors. Steve Wynn said, “So kid, what are you working on?” He always called me kid. He called me kid until I retired at the end of this year. So I told him what I was working on. He said, “I’m starting a brand new, really exciting project.” One that was never built by the way called Victoria Bay. He told me a little bit about it. He said, “You should come and work for me.”

Well, the next day I was supposed to be responding to negotiations, to buy 50 percent of Yates-Silverman. And instead, because that night I knew that if I didn’t go to work for Steve Wynn, I would always wonder what would have happened. I would have always had a backward view of where I could have been had I made that decision. And I knew that Charles was the kind of wonderful, understanding guy that if I left for a year or two or three, I could come back. And so I called Charles and said, “Well, I’m not going to accept your offer. And this is why.” And I went to work for Steve and Elaine Wynn the next day. And that was 1980.

SSR: Set the context. What had they already done in Vegas? What were they doing? It was 1980. What was Vegas like? Why could you not say no?

RT: Well, first of all, I knew Steve very well. He was a long-time family friend. I’d known him since I was 13 years old, and I was now 25. And of course I’d known Elaine and their two daughters well, as well. So Steve wanted to change the way Los Vegas looked and the way Las Vegas did business. He believed, and I knew this from being a friend and hearing him constantly discuss these things with my father, my father was his mentor, that he felt that Las Vegas was underselling itself, that there was a far more sophisticated, much more moneyed crowd of people that could be attracted to the Las Vegas if you build, these are his words, “the right kind of mouse trap,” that you had to not design in a way that was pandering to the masses, but design for the most sophisticated, highly educated traveler on the planet. And you would get not only them, but you would get the rest of the group as well because they wanted to be where the best was. I love that philosophy. And so I wanted to join him.

When Steve started thinking about building a tower on Fremont street in Downtown Las Vegas, which was, at that time, the low-market area. That was not the Las Vegas Strip. Caesar’s owned the high-end trade on the Las Vegas Strip. Steve wanted to steal it. So who did he call first to design his high rise hotel? I. M. Pei. Steve was not afraid of dreaming large. Pei did a concept. Pei didn’t build the tower for a couple of reasons, but it signaled to me that Steve was always willing to look at the very highest aspect of our industry and would never be satisfied anywhere at the bottom, that we’d always be shooting for the very top. And that’s where I wanted to go.

I didn’t want to stay in Las Vegas. I was going to leave Las Vegas. I didn’t know where I was going, most likely Southern California, where most of the rest of my family went, but because he wanted to do that and because he was so exciting and so articulate and so visionary, even at that time, I decided to see what would happen.

SSR: Okay, the first project didn’t happen, but take us on a little journey. What was the first real project that you got to realize with Steve and how do you think that, and the others that followed help to kind of change the perception, as he wanted to do, in Vegas?

RT: Well, the first project happened in a way. Henry Conversano and his team in Oakland were in charge of most of the public areas. I was working for Steve and Elaine on the tower and the standard room that I designed and which we built a model of became the new guest room at the Golden Nugget Downtown Las Vegas in one of its iterations.

And shortly after Victoria Bay dissolved, mostly because junk bonds hadn’t been invented yet. That was the method of financing a big portion of the Mirage. I was assigned the design of a new penthouse addition on the Tower Downtown. It had been built with that idea, and so I designed six one-of-a-kind extravagant penthouse suites, as well as a suite of executive offices.

At the same time, I was working on projects at the Atlantic City Hotel. And so I cut my teeth on those. Many of those apartments, this is now 40 years later, still exist at the Golden Nugget. That doesn’t mean they should, but they do, including one that Steve named after me. They each had a different design direction. I don’t use the word theme because I never had thought of myself as a theme designer with the exception of Treasure Island, which I call a plastimone regret.

So we designed each of them in what I thought of as a different period of history, informing the vocabulary for each one of those six apartments. And we started then using even the term apartment or penthouse rather than suite, because we wanted to develop a method of designing a hotel accommodation that was more personal that made it your pied-a-terre, not our hotel suite. And that’s a philosophy that we tried to follow for the entire 40 years.

SSR: Oh, that’s amazing. Name one hotel and why you think it was kind of your shining moment.

RT: Well, it would really be two projects. One was the Spa Suite Tower of the Golden Nugget. Steve wanted to take aim squarely at Caesar’s Palace and their highest end clientele, their highest end guests. And so we built this lavish tower, the Spa Suite Tower with two story suites and half floor suites, very large suites. The two-story suites had sweeping staircases. I was allowed to go anywhere I wanted to find things. I filled them with Boussac fabrics from France and J. Robert Scott furniture. It was very, very high-end.

We did two apartments. One was called the Kenny Rogers apartment. One was called the Diana Ross apartment. One being masculine, one being feminine, and each of them being occupied by both of those people when they appeared in the showroom at the hotel. They were both stars at the hotel. We went all out. I had fabrics handwoven. You shouldn’t do that. I did. I was given 90 days to redo a restaurant in that tower. And I had Ikat upholstery, Ikat chenille upholstery hand woven in the Philippines with a 90 day deadline, and I had to still get it onto banquettes. I didn’t know you couldn’t do it. And we did it. Silk Dynasty was doing it with me. We checked in daily with the Philippines. It’s raining. The dye’s not drying. One of the weavers got sick. It’s going to take an extra five days to do her yardage. It was hair-raising.

I flew to Venice and had a chandelier custom blown by Archimede Seguso, for which I’ll always be grateful because he was one of the great and most legendary of all the glassmaestri of Venice, but I didn’t know I couldn’t do it. So I just went about doing it. 90 days later, we opened a very elegant restaurant called Elaine’s and I was exhausted, but Jane Radoff, my design partner, rest her soul, she passed just a month ago, and I got it done because we didn’t know we couldn’t. That was great fun.

And the next one was the next great one for me was the Mirage. Again, Jane and I were partners and we were going to do only the rooms and suites, but Steve had hired three design firms to do the Mirage. One of them, Henry Conversano. I won’t name the other because it’s a respected firm that I’ve worked with many, many, many, many, many times, but Steve was having arguments because the head of that firm wasn’t giving him the-

Steve was having arguments because the head of that firm wasn’t giving him the personal attention that he felt he should get. They were becoming international in scope. The head of that firm was traveling internationally. And he wasn’t getting, frankly, the attention he got when he used that firm before with the firm’s principal, giving him everything he wanted, including all of the concepts.

So one by one, a restaurant, a spa, another restaurant, the meeting and convention spaces, got taken away from that designer and assigned to me. So I ended up at a rather young age, I think I was 33 or 34, maybe 35 when the Mirage opened, I had designed half the Mirage. And again, I think it was a case of, I didn’t know I couldn’t, I just kept doing it. And it was successful enough that I got the assignment for the next hotel, which was Treasure Island, which I’ve always regretted. I had a lot of fun. I didn’t regret doing it, but Steve and I learned the lesson of a lifetime, and that is not to participate in trying to make people believe they’re in a place or a time that they are not physically in.

It’s when I started the word, repli-texture. You cannot replicate another place, another era, another time, another culture. You can’t do it successfully. You can use those languages to inform you, but if you try to create a replica and Las Vegas is filled with them, bless every one of them. It was not us. It was not what we did. Once we opened Treasure Island, Steve and I looked at each other and said, “This is never going to work. None of the people working here act like pirates. This is not believable.”

SSR: Did it work?

RT: Treasure Island? Not for us, not for us. We started redesigning Treasure Island, the minute the doors opened. Fortunately, we were distracted with a new project. That was my doctoral degree in design called Bellagio. And that again was informed by a vocabulary of design in Northern Italy and Southern France. Not to replicate any of it, it was, I believe, very original, but it did use that vocabulary. And finishing that, I knew how to do a hotel casino resort project of that scale in a better way.

I decided to hire the best around me to do cameo appearances. I looked around the world with a clear eye at what I admired and called them and said, “Why don’t you design a restaurant for me?” Or, “Why don’t you do this?” Or, “Why don’t you do that?” Michael DeSantis, who had never, ever designed anything but fantastic residences in and around the New York and Florida area, designed his one and only restaurant. It’s still there to this day as one of the great restaurants in Las Vegas.

So I learned how to vary the texture and experience of a project of that scale. I would never do another one again by myself. And I would be energized by the work of those people around me, learn how to marry edges of their project with my project. It taught me a lot. It was a great learning experience. And it also taught me how to truly incorporate the language of luxury. Not that luxury needs to reference France or Italy or England in the 18th century; it doesn’t. And that’s what I learned from that project.

I learned it’s more about dignity of materiality. It’s about an extraordinary authenticity and it’s about layers. And it’s about designing, not to combine beautiful things together, but designing to create an experience that is dramatic, and romantic, and eminently comfortable, and joyous and surprising. Really your job is to design an environment where your guests feels their best selves. And you have to design that environment to be entirely unique, so that if they want that feeling of their best selves, they have to come back to you.

SSR: Yeah. And I think too, in Vegas, what you’ve done is you’ve taken these grand spaces and created these intimate moments, which I think is very hard to do. And so, even just remembering the first time I walked Wynn with you and just that there’s moments of surprise and elements of layers upon layers that just keep unfolding as you walk throughout this space. I mean, it’s not easy to do, yet somehow you have mastered that. Layering, is that just been something that you learned along the way? I mean, I don’t think that’s taught, I think that’s just part of what makes you, you.

RT: Well, the professor, Stephen A Wynn, was really the way I learned that. He knew that we all feel more comfortable, more attended to. He knew that the correct stage set for his staff who were all being trained to be really personally attentive, remember the guests name, address them properly, give them the physical space of respect.

So when I was presenting or when I was even in the very beginning planning, those notions of intimacy were discussed from day one. They were always a priority. Fortunately, I had learned the lessons of intimacy in grand spaces from the Baroque architects that went before me. Bernini was a master, as was Bramante. Even before Baroque, Michelangelo. If you look at the Laurentian Library, he was able to make tiny spaces seem grand.

And so there’s a lesson in reverse. And if you look at the way he did that, you know the limits of making grand spaces look intimate. So because I was a student of those, I was able to understand the language of demand that Steve was speaking and translate it into human scaled detail and human scale layering. And then a point of attention at both standing and seated eye level, that I think is really important. I also think that the moment of opening the door is when intimacy is established. And so you can’t open a door to a five story space with giant things in it and make someone feel intimate and taken care of.

So understanding that one of the things that, for instance, at Bellagio what we did, is we put the cage has to be in a building because of security reasons. Usually cages in casinos, which are the largest single public space in a hotel casino. Usually the cage is put on the edge because it also, for security, has to feed the back of house, so the coin, the cash, everything is going in a secure method.

We put the cage in the middle of the Bellagio Casino. One, it was closer to everybody, but that meant that we had to build the entire back of house underground. And that was the first time it was done in Las Vegas. All of the back of house was below Bellagio, not on the same level. So if you needed people to pop up at certain places, you would put their departments in those places. The theater department was below the theaters. The meeting and convention department was below meeting and convention. The casino functioning departments and support departments and public area departments, they were below the casino. Housekeeping and the room service connection, all of those connected. And that was also the genius of my partner in architecture, DeRuyter Butler, who builds a better hotel machine than any other guy on the planet. He’s extraordinary. He always knows how to make that hotel machine work flawlessly. Thank God.

SSR: So was Wynn the next one after Bellagio?

So what happened is, Mirage Resorts, the parent company, it had been Golden Nugget and it changed its name on the New York Stock Exchange to Mirage Resorts, publicly traded company. Mirage Resorts got an offer for the lion’s share of its stock, including all of Steve and Elaine Wynn stock from Kirk Kerkorian, who was the chairman of MGM. And it was a record price ever realized for any gaming stock in the history of the planet. Maybe the time of Nero, you could argue with it. It was an extraordinary offer and Steve realized it would let him begin afresh with a completely new kind of direction and idea, which he wanted to do.

So while that negotiation was going on with Kirk Kerkorian for the sale of the stock, Steve negotiated the purchase of the Desert Inn. I grew up rolling Easter eggs at the Desert Inn Country Club. It was one of the few hotels on the Las Vegas strip with a golf course. And because it was one of the oldest hotels in Las Vegas, not only did it come with this massive acreage that the hotel and golf course occupied, but it came with the best water rights of any property on the Las Vegas strip. And if you live in the desert or particularly, if you grow up in the desert, you know that water is king. And so that was very attractive. All of that was done and Steve gave Elaine Wynn the Desert Inn for her birthday.

And we moved across the street. Jane and I were still designing together. We took about four or five people with us. DeRuyter came with us as the head of the architecture department. Steve lured a few other department heads. Mark Shore came as the chief operating officer. So it was this very small coterie. We moved into the abandoned Desert Inn Hotel, into the area formerly occupied by Howard Hughes. So his ghost was with us, informing us the entire time. And he said, “So what are we going to build here?” And we took five years to ask ourselves every single question that we needed to ask to do it, to re-invent the Las Vegas Hotel Casino Resort. This had to be different. When he told me what he wanted for Bellagio, he said, “This has to be the most extravagant, extraordinary, elegant, and beautiful hotel on planet Earth.” Okay. And he agreed that we had delivered that. Now he said, “Now, we have to be even better than Bellagio by a market degree. It has to be no question that we’re well above it.” I said, “If I had known you were going to ask me to do this again, I might not have tried so hard the first time.”

He also said something else that was key. And that was, “I want something that no one has ever seen before.” So I can’t rely on any existing vocabulary of design. Something’s going to have to be invented. And I decided to invent a language, new words, new grammar, an entirely new language of design that would be bespoke to who we are, who we wanted to be. And we talked for days and months about what we wanted this hotel to be, about the mistakes we’ve made before in other properties that we were going to correct. And we started laying it out.

And while we were laying out the master plan of the property, I started thinking about what our design language would be. And I knew that from having done Bellagio that I wanted to use as my big idea, drama and romance and surprise. So how am I going to make it dramatic? The most romantic things ever designed or described, involved the female form. So everything would have the curve of the female form. So we just started that way and we ended up with Wynn Las Vegas.

SSR: That’s amazing. And I mean, there’s so many elements that we could go through, but what do you think was most successful about Wynn? I mean, what were you most proud of? If you could pick one moment or multiple moments or one idea maybe, that threads throughout this space?

RT: Well, I never looked at the hotel as one moment and I think that’s what was most successful about it. It was a very carefully planned cohesion. We were building two different resort experiences, the resort room and tower, and the Tower Suites room and Rower. And those had to marry seamlessly, yet provide the kinds of echelon of experience that were expected.

And so, again, I think it’s because I didn’t know that I couldn’t do it, I just did it. I thought of the experience as always being musical so that when you entered, it was like the beginning of a symphony. And then by the time you got to the end of the casino and, or the registration area and, or the elevator lobby, you had to reach a crescendo in that approach. And so you had to continually amp up the volume of the design to get to that crescendo. Then you had to know moments when you have to go lentisimo and let everybody relax, so that when they hit the next crescendo, they were rested enough for that crescendo to happen.

And so we thought of that all the way through. We thought of closely relating the kinds of color, but we didn’t repeat them. The resort experience was chocolate brown and white. The opposite of that is what we did for the Tower Suites. That had no great contrast. It was smaller spaces and it was all creams and whites and pale seafoam greens and pale, pale yellows. Everything had had a healthy drink milk by the time it got to the Tower Suites, yet you had to pass from one space into another. The meeting convention space, because it was so much more real estate, was again, another color scheme. And that was Pompeian red with white, so that it brought the drama back. So you went from the drama of the resort space through the quiet lentisimo of Tower Suites and back to another crescendo, and I think that that was it.

I had learned to do mosaics at Bellagio, but I wanted color. We decided that our favorite colorists, Steve Wynn and myself and Jane, all shared this opinion in the history of art, was Henri Matisse. And so Henri Matisse would guide the coloring, the accent notes of all of these spaces. Well, you can’t do Henri Matisse with marble mosaic, and so we were going to do it in Venetian glass mosaic.

And we created these giant scaled surprise, these giant scaled, floral elements on floor of the atrium. To do that, we had to invent a new way of inlaying marble. We had to waterjet cut the shapes in both marble and metal. The metal shapes had to go to the mosaic artists, two of the metal shapes. One metal shape went to the mosaic artists. One went to the guy waterjet cutting the marble. The marble then had to get an inlay surface below it to raise part of the level of the marble to the thickness of the mosaic, et cetera, et cetera. Very costly, very difficult, but we did it. So I think that’s one of my proudest moments, those very colorful mosaics.

So there were a lot of those things. Another fun thing was inventing the chandeliers over the gaming tables. That was one of our moves for intimacy. I asked Steve if he thought that a blackjack table would feel like your blackjack table, if I treated it like a dining table in a home and put a chandelier over it. And he said, “Yes, it absolutely will do that.” And we built a full-scale model of a casino to prove that to ourselves, a section of the casino in a Butler building on the golf course.

And so having built that scale model and having developed a chandelier, allowed us to work with the Nevada State Gaming Control Board to invent a camera that would go into the chandelier and allow it to not block the view of the table because the Nevada Gaming Control Board dictates that you have to be able to see the face of every player, the face of every card on the table and the hands and face of the dealer and the hands and face of every player. So we had to prove to the Gaming Control Board that we could do that with these large chandelier in the way of the traditional location of those cameras, which was on the ceiling. We not only did that, we patented it and we have very successful chandeliers over our tables. Only Steve Wynn would let you do that. That was a real investment in both time, and money and a lot of aggravation, but I’m very proud of that.

SSR: I remember once in one of conversations, you said, “It’s easy and very difficult to design with no budget.”

RT: Well, it is. But first of all, you don’t have an excuse. If you have failed to reach your goal when you didn’t have budget limitations…let me say that we always had a budget. There was always a budget, but Steve understood that he was asking for magic, and so he always allowed a budget that was able to achieve that magic. I did have the reputation of exceeding an unlimited budget, but that’s another story. So I have done that. I had an unlimited budget on one project and was told that I went over the budget.

SSR: And what was it like taking Wynn and Vegas, and then taking it overseas? Taking it to Kotai and Macau. How did you want to translate this new concept in Asia?

RT: Well, fortunately, because we had great partners on the ground in Asia, one of Steve’s lifelong friends was a brilliant guy named Allan Zeman whose entire career was in Hong Kong. And Allan was able to warn us about cultural assumptions, that just because it’s playing well in Las Vegas doesn’t mean it’s going to play well in China and that we should question everything we did in light of this culture we’re going to be approaching. Remember we’re one of the first three licenses approved for Macau, so we’re literally going to invent the casino post-Stanley Ho, who had the only casino then in Macau, and we want it to be different. We want to differentiate it and have it different than Stanley’s. So we began a cultural education tour.

One of the great challenges with taking the Wynn concept to China is, there was going to be one game in the casino and there weren’t going to be any slot machines. I had designed a lot of casinos by then, but the rules of design always involved baccarat and craps, and 21, and especially lots of slot machines. Nope, not happening.

So how do you design a casino that’s going to be all baccarat tables? Certainly, the way you’ve designed a casino that has that variety of components is not going to work as well. So we had to reinvent that. Also for the first one, we partnered with Hirsch Bedner. They had a lot of experience in Asia and in design in Asia. I was super busy at that time, getting Encore Las Vegas to wrestled and I didn’t want to dilute my attention as much as I would need to, to do two at the same time on two different continents. They had an office in Hong Kong. We could use their Los Angeles office for our pivot point, and I had a dear friend at Hirsch Bedner Los Angeles named Christian Callound, who I had traveled with a lot, who I trusted and so they brought a lot of experience with them also. So Steve was still the orchestra conductor, but I was first chair violin, and so I got to comment on everything that was going on, invent some things to be added into it and that equaled a very successful first experience. So the way you design a casino with lots of baccarat tables, is you design lots of baccarat rooms that go together to form one big casino.

SSR: What was it like designing all these massive properties? What were your days like? How big was your team? Give us some context of what was going on behind the scenes because these are mini-cities in some regards.

RT: Well, my design assignment was always in millions of square feet. And so that is a lot. First of all, I approached it as having a big idea and then dividing it into a series of ideas all within the first one. How do you design that many rooms? One room at a time. So I had a core staff by that time of about 65 people in Las Vegas. That staff grew to be nearly 120.

And my life, my days were greatly extended because there’s a 15-hour time difference. So at the end of my day, with my Las Vegas office, it was beginning of day for the China office. So we just had a lot of days. Nobody I know who does what we do on the level that we do it goes to work.

We live our job. We are so in love with what we do. We’re so grateful to wake every day with the blessing of making our dreams come true, that it doesn’t seem like work. So if I’m still at work at 9:00 at night, I’m really just making dreams come true until 9:00 at night. It’s a lot easier than probably it is to balance books until 9:00 at night. I’m shredding and coming up with new ideas, and engaged in refinement, and all kinds of other things.

SSR: You said that for the Wynn, that you guys didn’t want to repeat any mistakes that you had. I feel like you learn so much from your mistakes, sometimes more than your successes. What were some or one of the mistakes that you did not want to repeat again?

RT: I’ll give you two that greatly shaped Wynn. The first was we had wished we had put the conservatory as the entrance at Bellagio, and then the registration. Which is why you enter Wynn, whether from the Las Vegas Strip or from Sands Avenue in symmetrical experiences of an entrance into an atrium, and the registration is one of the amenities off of that.

Another was at surrounding the fountains at Bellagio, we positioned all of the restaurants or most of the restaurants to look at the fountains to enjoy the show. And two of the restaurants. Picasso and Prime were going to be down on the lake level. The others were going to overlook. And there were escalators going down to it. Well, we wanted audiences to be able to enjoy the fountain in public areas so we had the escalators descend through a hole in the floor heading towards the lake, but the reason for the hole in the floor was a inside balcony area for observing the fountains. We shouldn’t have done that, we decided. We should have opened the floor so that as you’re traveling on the escalators, you get to see the fountain show in front of you, which gives you this more dynamic view of the fountains because you’re actually descending towards them.

So that became the parasol area of Wynn Las Vegas, with the Lake of Dreams, the performance lake, and the waterfall viewed by the curved escalators with a hole in the middle so that everyone could see it. That’s how that happened. Correcting that huge mistake that no one else knew we made but us.

SSR: Yeah, isn’t that always the thing? No one else knows it, but it’s going to drive you nuts.

RT: Crazy. Crazy.

SSR: You must have so many stories from all the years in Vegas but what was it like seeing it go from what it was in 1980 to what it has become?

RT: Well, mostly it was aggravating if you lived there because every freeway that you had to drive was under construction. Every street was down to half its lanes for traffic cones because the infrastructure was being built at the same time as Las Vegas. So mostly for those of us who were living it and experiencing it, it was a lot of dust and a lot of aggravation in terms of getting from A to B. It at the same time was an enormous opportunity for me. It made my career. I didn’t look at what else was going on. I was so focused on getting what we did right that it would sometimes be years after a project opened before I ever went inside of it. And this is not known to many, I guess It will be now, there are several very large projects in Las Vegas I’ve never been in.

SSR: Really? Your own or others?

RT: Others. Oh, I’ve been in mine, daily. But no, others. And the projects that I did that were then taken over by others and redone, most of them I’ve never been back to.

SSR: Any reason? You just wanted to live in your own lane?

RT: Well, I was all consumed with this job I had.

SSR: Just a small job.

RT: And I was always intent on learning more about who we were as Wynn Resort. How I could make spaces function better for our staff, doing whatever they went. So if I was going to go to a restaurant, I’d go to one of ours so that I could see how our staff worked so the next time I did a restaurant, I could make their job easier. I think that’s a big part of what a designer should do in a hotel, is make the staff look like their job is effortless and give them more time to spend in personal interaction with their guest. So I’m maniacal about it, and I always did that.

SSR: In terms of stories, were there any some amazing moments that you had in these hotels with the characters and the people that must’ve come through your doors and been around, was there any moment of you sitting in one of your hotels and seeing some magic?

RT: So when we opened, Wynn Las Vegas, it was a private invitational only evening, and then we would open the hotel to the public at midnight. And after the performances happened, I was checking out the tower suite atrium to make sure that everything was absolutely perfect because I knew that the guests coming through that door were some more of Steve and Elaine Wynn’s invited guests. And Harry Connick Jr. and Hugh Jackman walked in with their ladies. And I thanked them for their great performance. They said, “Do we know you?” I said, “I’m the designer of the hotel.” We got into a conversation. I didn’t realize in this conversation, I lost track of time of course, that the hotel had opened. And someone with a yard long beer from another one of the strip resorts, we don’t sell those, walked into the atrium and fell into the fish pond at our feet.

I became incandescent. “What the hell?” they left because they realized this was not going to go well with their ladies. They exited stage left and I tried to get this guy out of the fish pond and out of the hotel as quickly as I could. So three days before that is another one of my great memories. And that was that were about to open for our first invited-only evening, which was a charity evening. I had had the hotel pretty much to myself and the staff. For the week before we do playdates. We all take the part of room guests, restaurant guests, playing in the casino, making sure all the staff is completely comfortable in doing what they do. So I’d done that for the week, but I was going to go home and sleep in my own bed, and the next day was going to be the first view by mostly the Las Vegas Society that I knew loved and had grown up with.

And I walked around the hotel and I had this thought, “This is either the best thing I’ve ever done or the worst.” I realized because I had taken risks with everything, because I was not using a language that I was familiar with, nor was anyone else, that it was all on me, and Steve, of course. But this invention was going to be seen in the light of day in the next day and did I really care if anybody else loved it, as long as I did? And I decided at that moment that first of all, I was grateful that I had taken enough risk to feel the way I was feeling. That frisson of insecurity would always be important to my creative effort. That nothing worth doing was ever going to feel secure.

It was always going to have this feeling of insecurity. That that’s part of what I was supposed to be doing. And part of my target. So I was grateful for that. And then I decided I loved it enough and I loved the experience of doing it enough that no matter what tomorrow brought, it was going to be okay. So that was one of my great moments of my entire life of design. It was all worth it. Whatever I did up until then was all worth it because of that moment.

SSR: Oh, I love that. And everyone loved it. So that worked out well too. Why did you decide it was time to walk away? Because you retired last year, right?

RT: I retired on January of this year. January 1st. Well, one of the reasons for the retirement was that it was the end of a five-year contract. A second reason for retirement is developing and designing these huge hotels requires an enormous amount of physical energy and endurance. Installing hotels of this scale is physically very demanding, and I was just finishing a project, Encore Boston Harbor but I knew that in five years time, when the next one was ready to install, I wouldn’t have the physical durability. I’d be in my mid-70s. And I didn’t want to be frustrated by not being able to put the icing on the cake.

Plus, Steve Wynn had left the hotel about a year before and my entire career was with Steve. And I was also very aware of, and I talked to Steve about this when I negotiated the five-year contract, who would take the reins at the end of the five-year contract. And just before Steve left, we together, selected the brilliant, the talented, the extraordinary Todd-Avery Lenahan. And I knew that I wanted to hand the reins over to someone, while I was still able to hand the reins over to someone, that I respected and loved and who had agreed he was available.

SSR: What did he ever say about you as a boss, when he worked with you? Did he ever share any insight to how it was?

RT: Yeah, I think the word he usually used was demanding, yet understanding.

SSR: And when Steve stepped down, what was that whole experience for you?

RT: Surreal. It was very surreal because I spent a large part of my waking hours with Steve Wynn in meetings. Steve loved nothing more than inventing with his design team. So I would come up with an idea and then go and take ideas, drawings and sketches and materiality and things to him and we would refine them together. It was very much a co authorship of what happened.

So my new partner in that position, Matt Maddox, who is an extraordinarily talented head of this company. I can’t say enough good things about Matt Maddox. I am so proud of the way he’s handled all of the challenges that have come along. COVID being one of them. He has been the leader in the hospitality industry, particularly in the state of Nevada, on this very challenging issue.

SSR: After 50 years in this industry, five decades, what still keeps you inspired? I mean, what keeps you passionate and getting up and creating these new objects? I mean, obviously you’re not, you are designing your home, but you’re not designing these big spaces anymore, but you’re still designing amazing products. But what keeps you going? What gets you up and keeps you inspired every day?

RT: My thirst for discovery hasn’t changed. There are still I can go to a painting I’ve seen a hundred times and still find a lesson in that painting. I can go into a room I’ve walked into a hundred times and still find a lesson in that room. And I always have my sketchbook with me to record the memory. I don’t so much draw what I see, but once I get away from it for a coffee or a lemonade, I sit down and draw something that was inspired by that lesson. So I still get to the end of every day, not having drawn or learned enough.

SSR: Would you say that would be your greatest piece of advice to young designers? To keep learning and keep knowing the history and knowing what has influenced design and architecture over the years?

RT: Well, I think there’s three things that I would tell young designers and do, when I go about speaking. One is, learn to draw. Everybody who gets to an elevated area of design can hand draw their ideas quickly. Because if you’re with a client and you need to draw something to explain it to them, they’re not going to let you go back to your computer and come back the next day. The guy in the room who can draw the quick idea, is going to get their attention. Particularly if you deal at the echelon of client that I’ve dealt with historically.

Two is learn and honor the history of design and architecture. I find that most of the people coming into my charge, on my teams, most of my colleagues, were not given that. For some reason they didn’t study it in school. It wasn’t taught enough in school. They learned enough if they took the NCIDQ. They learned enough for that part of the NCIDQ to pass it, but that was it. And it’s such a rich area of inspiration. Understanding why Versailles happened is very important, I think, to understanding why hotel design happens. So I think that it’s crucial.

And the third bit of advice is take risk. Do not design something you’ve already seen. And that means that if you’re getting your inspiration from, and I hate to say this, but I think it’s really true, if you’re finding it on Pinterest or other social media platforms, it’s already been done before, why are you doing it? Do something that hasn’t been done before.

Our industry is filled with people copying other people. It’s a wasted opportunity. Invent something, don’t copy someone else. You’re wasting an opportunity. And you’re going to get to the end of your life never having done anything original. Is that what you really want?

I wanted my life to be filled with creating originality, with being able to create things that I’d never seen before, not copying things that someone else had done, because frankly, if you’re copying, you’re one room behind.

SSR: What is your, If you had your crystal ball, what do you see ahead of us, coming out of this pandemic? In terms of if the industry will change, if it won’t. I know a lot of people go back and forth on how this will ultimately affect us down the road, but what’s your prediction, if you will, for the industry moving forward?

RT: Well, one of the great lessons Steve Wynn taught me, was that people get tired of doing without. So I believe that we all want to return to life as we knew it before with a few modifications. I think this is going to put us technologically ahead of where we were.

When I left the industry, the nano industry was beginning to get some notice and some discussion. And I think it’s an industry that could develop really innovative surfaces that are self-cleaning or self-disinfecting. And that would be not only hard surfaces, which are much needed, but textiles and other things. So that if, God forbid, this should happen again, we have the development in technology already in place to handle it.

So I think we’re in for some new inventions, but I think that as soon as we can get back to operating the way we were before, a giant sigh of relief is going to go up. We’ll probably be able to hear it, because it will be global. And I think a lot of it’s going to go back to where it was before.

SSR: No, I totally agree. And I feel like I could talk to you forever, but in sake of time, I’m going to end with our last question that we always end on, and that is the title of this podcast. So what has been your greatest lesson learned?

My greatest lesson learned I think, is one of the things that I already spoke about and that is never copy, always, always be original. It requires risk. It makes you uncomfortable. It leaves your sphere of security in order to do it, but it means that you are growing and advancing and achieving. And in the end, it’s what you love most about yourself and it creates the most valued work of your career.

SSR: Love that. Love everything about you. Thank you so much for spending this hour with me. It’s always such a pleasure to see you and listen to you, Roger. You’re a true gem in this industry. And I’m glad that you have retired, but you haven’t gone so far away. And I hope I get to see you in real life soon, but until then.

RT: I hope so too. Thank you.