Shop While You Eat at This New York Hotspot by Gwyneth Paltrow's Designers
Roman and Williams Guild, which nestles in with Soho's La Mercerie, gives visitors such as Blake Lively and Meg Ryan the chance to road test wares while feasting at the cafe.
Fifteen years ago, New York designers Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch transitioned from set design (Addicted to Love, Zoolander) to homes (Ben Stiller, Kate Hudson, Gwyneth Paltrow), hotels (The Standard, Ace, Freehand) and restaurants (Le Coucou, Facebook's Menlo Park cafeteria).
In December, they launched a SoHo outpost, Roman and Williams Guild, which inhabits a 1857 landmark building on the corner of Howard and Mercer Streets that was once New York's first department store, and in more recent times a bank featuring "mauve formica," Standefer says. The designers took cues from the building's upper windows, reimagining the interior space to lead guests past blue banquettes of the entryway's French cafe (La Mercerie, a partnership with Starr Restaurants) and blooms by Emily Thompson Flowers.
The Guild sells furniture, lighting and accessories conceived and curated by the design duo, whether from Japanese or Scandinavian artisans or others that have inspired the couple on their travels. Visitors may road-test the tableware (from a $12 zinc glass to a $15,000 dining table) before they buy, while feasting on a pastry and a Pic du Midi cocktail at the cafe, run by Marie-Aude Rose (wife of Le Coucou chef Daniel Rose).
"Isn't that a better way to shop?" asks Standefer. "Is it nice to put this fork in my mouth and touch this plate? It's the guild of the senses: You have to touch it, feel it, sense it, and sit on it."
"The fact they hand you a menu of the items that you're interacting with, other than just the food, is pretty cool — if you are fortunate enough to afford it, great," says Blake Lively, who has been "obsessed" with the designers for some time and hopes to collaborate with them on reimagining a piece of their furniture. "I appreciate that Stephen and Robin find beauty in asymmetry and the imperfect. I love that they give new life to older pieces. There is a timelessness to their design, yet it is completely relevant and forward-thinking."
Lively is part of a growing group of Guild fans and regulars. Standefer recently was reunited at the shop with Meg Ryan, whom she met while working on Griffin Dunne's 1997 film Addicted to Love. "I easily hadn't seen her in 10 to 15 years," she says of the La Mercerie habitué. (She also confirmed Ryan still owns a bed and workbench from the film's set.)
Dunne calls Standefer and Alesch — who are married and have homes in New York's NoHo area and Montauk — "one of the most stable working couples that I've known in a long time. They're both insanely creative and a true partnership, equally dependent on each other."
"We both play in each others realms and keep each other on our toes," Alesch says of his working relationship with his wife. "We serve as editors and question each other and listen to one another. We are very open to each other's opinions, and mutual approval is essential."
They first met on writer-director Michael Tolkin's The New Age (1994). Alesch had studied and worked in architecture before set designing on films including Stargate and Gattaca. Standefer, who studied fine arts, had worked on Martin Scorsese films (Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence) as a visual consultant and got her first production design credit on Tolkin's The Rapture. Tolkin was impressed with her ability to source things on a budget and her "relentless" work ethic. "Even then, she hated designing stuff that got destroyed; she wanted to build real things," says the director.
Dunne suspects the designers started to yearn for projects with more permanence after working on his 1998 film Practical Magic. "They built an entire witches' house on Native American land," he says. "We were given permission to do it if we tore it down the day after we finished shooting. It was a stunning house."
Combined, the pair have worked on more than 20 films and, after completing Danny DeVito's Duplex, which starred Stiller, they pivoted. "Ben said, 'The set looks better than my house.' We said, 'It doesn't have to be that way,' " remembers Standefer. "We built Ben a pretty big compound in the Hollywood Hills, and the rest is history. We never went back to working in film."
They also designed a house in Venice for Davis Guggenheim and Elisabeth Shue, and projects followed for Hudson and Paltrow. (More homes are in the works for Jimmy Fallon and Nancy Juvonen, and a Santa Barbara house for Paltrow.)
They launched Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors, named after their maternal grandfathers, and headquartered their design studio in Manhattan.
When it comes to collaborating with their clients, Standerfer says, "It's almost not about a person" — whether it's an actor or a chef — "It's about a sense of place, what the narrative of that space is, and what the client wants it to represent. And we find our stylistic rhythm within that. It comes from a script."
"I envisioned Goop Lab as our take on an English cottage: cozy, elegant, irreverent," says Paltrow of the inspirations for the first permanent shop location for her lifestyle brand, in the Brentwood Country Mart in Santa Monica. "When it comes to taste, Robin and Stephen are unparalleled. As expected, they took my concept and translated it into 1,300 square feet of shoppable whimsy, complete with a greenhouse, clean beauty apothecary and working kitchen."
Narrative also leads at the Guild. "We wanted the Guild to be energetic and not like an art or design gallery — those spaces are so folded-arm and uptight," says Alesch. "We wanted it to be noisy and social and fun." He hopes it will endure as "a place that doesn't change all the time and a place that is not judge-y or intimidating."
Hotelier Sean MacPherson (N.Y.'s Bowery, Ludlow, Marlton) is the couple's Montauk neighbor and friend, and loves to talk design with them. He says, "In a field where people's work overlaps, you can end up as frenemies, but that's not the case with them." He credits their movie background as one of the secrets to their success. "They can be far more chameleon-like than other designers. Others apply language over and over and over, but because they come out of film, they are multilingual." He says they are "a great yin and yang as human beings — Stephen is a California surfer dude and Robin is a New York force of nature. They are curious and soulful people who connect to their work in a meaningful way — sort of like Charles and Ray Eames, but very differently."
With the Guild — elevated but accessible — they wanted to "give these pieces a home" with an emphasis on "making things to last" instead of doing a licensing deal.
Standerfer laments the "mass market" nature of things now. "You can love a Valentino dress, but can buy it in any city," she says. "The Guild is a little bit of an antidote to that."
"They're not just doing it for the sake of doing it, they live it through and through, and you can see that in the Guild and in everything they do," adds MacPherson. "The Guild is big, but it doesn't feel corporate. In a world that feels increasingly homogenized, they put their on fingerprints on things."
A version of this story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.