Design Firm ASH NYC on the Art of Listening

Chloe Malle

Photography by Christian Harder

ASH co-founders Ari Heckman and Jonathan Minkoff with partners Will Cooper and Jenna Goldman outside The Siren Hotel in Detroit.

The partners of ASH NYC don’t have a long-term plan and they like it that way. They have a lot of short-term plans, of course, including expanding their growing hotel group to Baltimore and bolstering their newly opened Los Angeles staging office, but when asked about the real estate and design company’s long-term plans, the three partners—Ari Heckman, CEO; Jonathan Minkoff, CFO; and Will Cooper, CCO—demur. “I get asked that question all the time,” says Heckman, “and I’m really averse to defining it, because who knows!” The other two bob their heads in agreement.

They are sitting in the office Cooper and Heckman share in their Williamsburg headquarters on Roebling Street. In a few months they will move their expanding team (currently 38) to an office double the size in Greenpoint. The three young partners talk so eagerly about their 11-year-old business that they constantly interrupt one other before politely apologizing and encouraging the interrupted to finish his thought. Behind them, six-foot-tall mood boards are propped against the walls of the office, highlighting design elements that run throughout their projects: color (red, yellow, blue, green are the recurring hues) and attention to detail, such as the custom houndstooth being created for the upholstery at the as-yet-unnamed Baltimore hotel, a 1912 Beaux-arts building that was once housing for wealthy bachelors. There are also the inspiration images for their line of utilitarian—but perfectly crafted—furniture, what Cooper calls a “basics” collection: round stools and side tables influenced by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, Walter Gropius and Pierre Jeanneret. It can be hard to keep track of all the different arms of the ASH NYC octopus.

“As we grew and evolved over the years, all these things existed under the ASH umbrella, and that means different things to different people,” explains Heckman of his resistance to self-identify too rigidly. ASH NYC began in 2008 as a real estate investment and staging company, but when a hotel property came on the market in Providence in 2012, the two arms of the business came together and a new focus took shape. In addition to the hotels, staging and real estate investment, there is the furniture line and a handful of private design clients—but the appeal of being their own clients with the hotels is hard to resist.

“So much of our success in the hotel business has been from not knowing what we were doing,” admits Heckman, “and being unbound by the rules that apply to the people who come from the corporate hotel world.” Cooper agrees, “Sometimes it feels like we’re playing hotel or playing office.” Currently there are three hotels in the ASH NYC repertoire: Providence’s The Dean, a landmarked one-time strip club and brothel, The Siren Hotel, a Renaissance Revival building in downtown Detroit and the recently opened Hotel Peter & Paul in a former church and rectory in the Marigny district of New Orleans. Baltimore will be next, and then who knows—they are looking all over the United States, the criteria for potential locations being cities with an interesting cultural, culinary and architectural heritage: “Places that had an undercurrent of really cool things happening but didn’t have the hospitality to match it,” summarizes Heckman. It was important to them that the hotels act as local hubs as well as traveler destinations. Their dining establishments now all boast James Beard Award-nominated chefs. They’ve listened to the local communities and responded to what was wanted in the neighborhood: a barbershop in Detroit, an ice cream parlor in New Orleans. “In the teens and ’20s, hotels had telegraph machines and that’s why people went to hotels on a daily basis,” says Heckman. “What’s the modern equivalent of that?”

Unlike peers such as Kit Kemp or Roman and Williams, you do not immediately recognize an ASH NYC hotel as soon as you stroll into the lobby. “Our design is very site-specific,” says Heckman, “every project has a unique vision; it’s not the same style that you can recognize.” Indeed, in New Orleans “there was this ecclesiastical component of being in a church,” explains Cooper, who handles all creative and design for the company. He looked at Russian and Greek icons and Renaissance religious paintings for inspiration for the rich hues of the four signature colors that run through their projects. The result is an almost Rococo use of color, fabrics (three sizes of Swiss-made gingham are a theme throughout the property) and trompe l’oeil details, like the simulated Sicilian flower marble bar and the Jean Michel Frank-inspired painted molding on the bureaus and armoires. Meanwhile, Baltimore will be more Art Deco, with the influence of men’s haberdashery dictating the fabrics. “Our design process is different than most bigger firms,” explains Cooper, “it’s constantly evolving.” For example, Cooper and Heckman spent the previous three days in Baltimore and, after a visit to the Baltimore Railroad Museum, Cooper’s concept for the hotel lobby pivoted. “That’s a good example of how you see something and it will take you off on a tangent, so stay tuned!” says Cooper, laughing. We will.