Constraints lead to Innovation

Ian Schrager invented the “lifestyle” hotel concept in 1982 (Morgan’s Hotel in NYC) years before there was a term to describe the approach to hotel design.

A few days ago, he spoke to architecture graduate students at Columbia University about his career and innovation in hotels. Three themes emerged…


There are two main type of constraints — self-imposed constraints and physical plant constraints. Self-imposed constraints involve capital constraints and decision making. [He had $60k to complete the project and acquired the building from a Studio 54 investor promissory note.]

Physical plant constraints are limitations driven by the space within the four walls and the infrastructure.

When constrained, creative solutions emerge. Three examples from Morgans Hotel development:

  1. There was no space to fit an PTAC unit in such a small space (250 sq ft). They masked an in-wall air conditioner and mounted a non-functional thermostat on wall to alter perception. (They never received a complaint.)
  2. They used glass doors on bathtubs — the best solution to make a 30 sq ft bathroom feel spacious.
  3. Use of steel sinks and exposed plumbing in bathroom. Cheap but very European aesthetic.

Question the Status Quo

Always question to status quo. There’s no such this as “standard”. In the Morgans Hotel alone, there were lots of firsts because he chose to challenge each FF&E and design convention:

  1. Used a bed throw at the edge of the bed instead of an indestructible comforter.
  2. Used loose decorative pillows.
  3. The standing fear was the pillows would be stolen. (Guests rose to the occasion).
  4. Exposed plumbing for bathroom sinks. Although common in Europe, it was a first in the States.
  5. Solid color carpet.
  6. Paint on walls (no wallpaper).
  7. Ledge seating (kids wouldn’t get hurt).
  8. Communal dining table (the first ever in a restaurant).

These are many more conventions he defied in this hotel alone.

Each hotel he developed for the next 20 years (before he had competition) stacked an additional layer of innovation with their design and service standards.

Although he clearly coins himself a “dictator”, his characterization is rooted in desire for the best product. He puts his ago aside, pushes his designers and architects to translate his vision, and shares recognition with everyone.

Push the boundary

Ian pushes his collaborators in a positive yet challenging, dictatorial direction — all to create the best product. He’s humble and shares notoriety and success with all. (Instincts and vision drive design, not extensive customer research as the flagged hotel brands.)

*It’s important to note, his markets are 24-hour cities: NYC, Miami, LA, London where he doesn’t have to work as hard to create demand.

Originally published at