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When fake isn't just as good.

It began a while ago, my ongoing love affair with surfaces. An undergraduate degree in interior design secured a place for it: wallpapers that shimmered like gold, porcelain tiles that mimicked marble. I embraced it, knew that there were many ways to make things look like they were something they were not, and even had a brief side career in faux finishing to supplement earnings while at school.

When I returned to school for an architectural education, there were questions and provocations about this love of the cosmetic: hoary quotations that a brick knew what it wanted to be, that honest materials were the only right, honorable, even moral way to build a space. Thankfully, the New York avant-noise trio Blonde Redhead put out an album during the first year of my studies that would become a counter-mantra when this debate inevitably came up: “Fake can be just as good.”

I delighted in having this argument with colleagues, on reviews, or at openings. It became a flashpoint for conversation, a real line drawn, with quite clear conditions to the debate. There was Carlo Scarpa and Louis Kahn on one side (call it Team Honesty), and contemporary practices such as Koolhaas/OMA and Herzog & de Meuron proving that, given the right project and circumstances, materiality was a ripe playing field for the profession. (I can even argue the inherent fakeness in Mies van der Rohe’s oeuvre on request.)

The Bowery Hotel, New York City.  Photo by Gregory Goode. The Bowery Hotel, New York City.  Photo by Gregory Goode. The Ace Hotel, New York City.  Photo by Robyn Lee. (Flickr/Creative Commons) The Ace Hotel, New York City.  Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid. (Flickr/Creative Commons)
The Ace Hotel, New York City.  Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid. (Flickr/Creative Commons) The Beehive restaurant, Boston.  Photo by CityRover Media. (See and related story at (Flickr/Creative Commons) AllSaints Spitalfields retail store, Newbury Street, Boston.  Photo by Nathanael Hevelone. (Flickr/Creative Commons) AllSaints Spitalfields retail store, London.  Photo by Rene Passetti. (Flickr/Creative Commons)
AllSaints Spitalfields retail store in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Las Vegas.  Photo by Rosa Say. (Flickr/Creative Commons)      

Click images above to view slideshow.

In the fall of 2007, however, a new breed of counterfeit emerged in the pages of Wallpaper and design blogs that would challenge my allegiance to this sacred theme: New York’s Royalton Hotel. Once the grand dame of Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck’s boutique empire, it had been renovated by Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, New Yorkers who operate under the firm name Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors, as a dark, deco, arrière-garde tableau, complete with seemingly found artifacts, rounded corners, and chiaroscuro lighting effects.

This made sense, given their own backgrounds as production designers on such diverse films as Addicted to Love and Zoolander. And as with all good design ideas (especially ones located in New York that are highly photographable and easily digested by the media), variations soon began to appear. The Ace Hotel and its ancillary spaces, the Bowery and Maritime hotels; Public restaurant; and then, in Boston, places such as AllSaints Spitalfields, 5 Napkin Burger, The Beehive, and the Woodward tavern at the Ames Hotel. And we are bound to see more of this when Baz Luhrmann’s highly-stylized film version of The Great Gatsby is released this winter.

My colleagues and I were puzzled by this new trend, since it doesn’t seem to fit into any of the familiar design dialogues. We settled on the moniker “fauxstalgia” to label the phenomenon.

What these spaces have in common is a decidedly unmodern sensibility in how they are designed and deployed. The interiors hark back to a moment just before the emergence of the mass-produced design object — right before the moment when Charles Eames made his plywood splint.

They may seem tongue-in-cheek, but these places are not just slightly coy in their use of filament bulbs that mimic candles, or that fashion shelving and other displays out of pipe fittings with overscaled and clunky connectors, or that leave wood raw and unfinished, or blur the line between what is ready-made and what is specifically designed. In spaces like the Ace Hotel lobby and the bar at the Bowery, they recall a preglobalized, even colonialist sensibility and style.

In the Ace, the hotel lobby is remade in the guise of a gentlemen’s club from the 1940s, complete with taxidermy, a seemingly well-read library, oversized furniture, and low-wattage lighting that provides a sense of intimacy (or cover for a voyeur). At the Bowery, palm fronds lazily reflect in hand-waxed wood panels and found furnishings — including an entire bar — that are reminiscent of pre-Castro Havana. New or contemporary furnishings, Standefer and Alesch have said, would be too distracting and unfamiliar in these spaces.

Another curio: Most of these are exclusive hospitality settings, and many of their “public” spaces have become de facto gathering spots for urban nomads —  the hipster, the freelancer, the traveler — allowing them to temporarily revel in the seeming luxury of these branded spaces that they could never afford to make their own.

What has brought this unmistakably antimodern trend to the surface now? Is it the desire to retreat from a world that is so interconnected and immediate? The desire to have something that is certifiably authentic in a seemingly vapid video culture? Or is it, as some have suggested, that during a time of structural instability in all aspects of world finance and politics, we yearn for something to anchor ourselves to the past, no matter how idealized?

To me, there is something decidedly false in the deployment of design in these spaces, in their earnest morality, in the connoisseurship implied in their production. By summoning a culture and a class that cannot be reproduced, these spaces are not deceptively nostalgic, nor are they honest to the memory they evoke. Rather than engaging in an explicit practice of materiality, surface, and use, or even evidencing a sense of delight in the discovery process, the Roman and Williams take on recycling is literal: a yearning for stability by using signifiers that ultimately have little meaning.

Instead, these spaces operate as film sets: surface-level evocations of pasts that we now pay —  handsomely — to get lost in, while bartenders in curled mustaches mix yet another batch of artisanal bitters and cordials, and the only evidence of the contemporary are the faces illuminated by laptops and tablets, and the sharing of instantly antiqued digital photographs.