Alex Calderwood: Hotelier and self-styled ‘cultural engineer’ who gave his Ace chain a distinctively unconventional and offbeat style

 

Alex Calderwood was the co-founder of the Ace Hotel chain, which had just opened its latest venture only six weeks ago in Shoreditch, London. His body was found in one of the rooms of that hotel; the exact cause of his death is still to be determined.

He called himself a “cultural engineer”, and Calderwood’s hotels were known for their quirky style and breaking of the usual hospitality business rules, combining a mixture of budget rooms with luxury suites. Guest rooms featured offbeat additions such as a record deck with a box of LPs. The walls were adorned with images by street artists, including Shepard Fairey, now best known for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster. Calderwood’s rationale in choosing the name Ace was, he said, that “In a deck of cards the ace is both high and low. We chose it because we wanted the brand to appeal to every sort of traveller.”

Calderwood was born in Denver, Colorado in 1966 and grew up in Seattle, one of four children. His father, Thomas, worked in the construction industry while his mother, Kathleen, was a journalist. “I was a good kid but I think more from a little bit of fear, he recalled. “I just wanted to do things right... I got invited to parties, but I was quiet.”

That wish to “do things right” had initially led him towards wanting to be a lawyer but life soon took him in other directions. He met his boyfriend, Wade Weigel, at a club in Seattle, and the pair decided to go into business together, with Weigel as the ideas man and Calderwood who would see through the ideas to completion. “Alex and I were more like brothers than business partners,” said Weigel. “He finished my creative thought on all the projects we worked on together. He was a creative genius who made more than a dent in the universe.”

In a 2011 interview Calderwood explained his collaborative ethos. “When I was younger I had a job working for a couple of designers who worked on every creative medium. So they designed graphics, clothing, interiors, and blurred the lines as to what was possible. It was the first time that I started to realise that if you have a point of view and a perspective you could team up with others to create something.”

Their first major venture, together with their friend and business partner Doug Herrick, was Rudy’s, a retro-style barbershop launched in 1992 in his home city of Seattle. Rudy’s has since grown to a network of 17 outlets, of which nine are in other cities across the US, hosted within the Standard Hotels owned by André Balazs. “When we opened Rudy’s, it was just an idea we liked. We never envisioned opening more”, Calderwood said. “I remember a lot of people whose opinion I trusted telling me it would never work. It took off immediately.”

The success of Rudy’s drove them to think bigger, towards the idea of creating a hotel with the same unconventional character that had inspired their barber shop chain. “We saw an opportunity to do something different in the middle tier.” Calderwood recalled. “We weren’t looking to roll out a product that would appeal to everyone. We didn’t do market research or conduct focus groups. We just wanted to create a hotel that we’d like to stay in – one that appealed to us personally.”

In 1999 he opened his first Ace in Seattle, taking over a former hostel used by dockers and working with the designer Eric Hentz to turn it into a 28-room boutique hotel. A review by Harriet Walker for this newspaper said, “The Ace is supremely hip, from its bearded, lithe doormen to the rock music-theme cocktails (Pablo Honey, Lust for Life, London Calling). The main lounge is an everyday sanctum for Apple Mac users to chill out in; hotel guests and local itinerant freelancers alike combine to make the ground floor feel like a real hub.” Walker noted that “...it’s not often that a hotel becomes such a focus for so varied a scene, and people-spotting here can be rewarding.”

It was eight years before the launch of a second hotel, opened in 2007 in Portland, Oregon, but further conversions in Palm Springs and Manhattan soon followed. Future openings in Panama City and Los Angeles were planned at the time of Calderwood’s death.

Calderwood had spoken of his past problems with alcoholism, saying recently, “I am very proud of my sobriety,” and noting, “You get to a certain age, and you get to a certain point, where you realise this is just, like, dragging me down. It’s not fun any more. I’m not enjoying it.” In recent years he had lived a peripatetic lifestyle, staying mainly at his own hotel properties while planning the future development of others. His company had acquired the Crowne Plaza on Shoreditch High Street, which he had previously used as his base during visits to London, and made it one of his own. The new 265-room Ace Hotel, where he was found, had opened in September.

Ryan Bukstein, head of public relations for Ace Hotels, said in tribute “His humility, spirit of collaboration and tireless work ethic has influenced our family at Atelier Ace and creatives across the globe. We all plan to continue moving forward with the ideals Alex championed so naturally.”

Alexander Calderwood, hotelier: born Denver, Colorado 28 January 1966; partner to Wade Weigel; died Shoreditch, London 14 November 2013.

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