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Why the lobby is the most important space in Las Vegas

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The Cosmopolitan’s Vesper is not the kind of lobby bar where you rush through a crappy gin and tonic. It’s a place to spend time. That idea, that a lobby is a destination, is strongly represented in the current generation of Las Vegas resorts.
Photo: Adam Shane

Foreplay. That’s what a lobby is. A good one tells you exactly where you are, your senses downloading in seconds an interior landscape engineered to make you feel something specific. You see the personality of a hotel, its most intimate character on display in its most public space, because if you get that taste, you might crave another.

Sometimes that taste is a basket of old peppermints on marbled plastic, though that’s rare on Las Vegas Boulevard. With so many mega-resorts competing for attention, every new property pushes design and expectations. The current generation has made the lobby its weapon of choice, transforming the forgettable holding tank into a striking visual signature and high-end destination in its own right.

“Lobbies are absolutely much more important than they used to be,” says Shawn Sullivan, partner and studio leader at Rockwell Group, a New York-based design firm that has created atmosphere in more than 20 Vegas locales, from the Cosmopolitan and Crystals to Simon at Palms Place and Five50 at Aria. “They used to just be places that people arrived and just someplace to check in, perfunctory, and everybody worried about the pool or the all-day dining restaurant; that was where you put your big creativity. But the lobby is really the arrival experience.”

Sullivan’s touch can be seen at the Cosmopolitan and Nobu Hotel—opposite in scope and style yet with equally stirring lobbies. The goal, he explains, is to learn a brand and tell its story with details that “solve the way that their guest expects to be greeted.” That also goes for guests who aren’t checking in. Sullivan says hotels are depending more and more on engaging the wandering day-trippers in simple pleasures discovered on the fly. That’s why lobbies are adding attractions, and why newer floor plans are open, with sight lines peeking in on the good times others are having. These five Las Vegas lobbies tell very different stories, but they all start the good times at the door.

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      The Cosmopolitan, 3708 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 698-7000

      My reflection liquefies into a spore that looks half machine; then endless stacks of leather-bound books; then a swarm of lightbulbs; then a crystal sprouting and speckling with pastel flicked from some unseen paintbrush. Nearly 400 LCD screens tile massive columns separating the Cosmopolitan’s check-in from the salmon run of day visitors, and people on both sides stare like apes at the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Everybody in the lobby becomes part of the experience ... and it just feels very social,” Sullivan says of the vibe he helped design. “You don’t mind lingering.”

      Cosmopolitan

      The lobby’s moment-to-moment digital art show is best viewed from Vesper, a bar that packs major aesthetic punch with its mashup of sleek urbanity and sparkle. It targets the so-called “Curious Class” of worldly guests open to new ideas, though old ideas of the Vegas lobby bar are alive and well in a couple sharing a little hair of the dog near a pack of guys just getting the bachelor party started. But the drinks here are meant for sipping, original craft cocktails that mingle premium spirits with bold flavors like juniper soda or masala chipotle purée or syrups spiked with sage and rose.

      The beauty of a lobby bar, though, is that you don’t have to order a thing to enjoy its comforts. A man alone, feet up and holding a magazine without reading it, has a look on his impeccably bearded face like there’s nowhere in the world he needs to be. So he gazes up at the overhead installation, a nod to the ruffled skirt of Wonderland’s Alice that mimics old-fashioned ribbon candy. The bar’s façade is fractured glass, one of countless textures that reward you for looking closer. Even shiny “egg” barstools have chevrons you only see in certain light.

      “There was, I think, a day when the building itself, from far away, told a story and the lobby just helped extend that story,” Sullivan says. “But you spend all your time inside, and that’s where you really want to create this fantasy.”

      Sweet details: The stylish rotary phones in the lobby alcoves are not just for show; they can be used to dial the resort operator or make local calls. And the new outpost of coffee shop Va Bene serves pastries so good that one Yelper said to the baker: “I want to meet you and kiss you on the mouth.”

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      Artisan Hotel Boutique, 1501 W. Sahara Ave., 214-4000

      Looking like sphinxes after happy hour, Doberman statues lazily guard the heavy black doors. One is propped open, like the master of this mysterious house is expecting me. If Vegas had an eccentric-billionaire king, the Artisan would be his castle. I say castle because the off-Strip hotel is a romantically dark museum of Gothic kitsch. And I say billionaire because every surface, including the ceiling, bristles with art, from the polished bust of an Egyptian queen to the chunky brushstrokes of Van Gogh’s self-portrait. The works are copies, of course, but that doesn’t make them any less gape-worthy. For the first 20 minutes, I don’t even notice the front desk.

      Artisan

      I do notice the seating, from a hulking, striped specimen that screams Beetlejuice to the leather antiques with gilded scrollwork to a low-slung, red-suede armchair by the bookshelf holding David Wisniewski’s The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups. (Rule #37: Drink your milk so the radioactive cows don’t explode.)

      Aside from being visually fun, diverse furniture arrangements make a lobby suited to every taste, Sullivan says. “Some people like to be seen; some people like a cozy corner; some people like cocktail height and some people like continental height; and some people like to sit at bars,” he explains. “Often, we [designers] do our best work when we’re able to create a variety of experiences, so if you’re there at breakfast or you’re there at dinner or you’re there a couple of days later, you have the opportunity to have a different experience in the same space.”

      Tonight, I can’t stop looking at a circle of sculpted nymphs around a fountain begging for wishes, their faces lit by art deco ceiling lights and pink crystal chandeliers like rained-on spider webs. This lobby is decadent, but it feels so comfy that I almost take off my shoes.

      Sweet details: There’s an opulent wedding chapel off the lobby with impressive reproductions of sacred artworks (not on the ceiling). And on Wednesdays, there’s wine tasting, gourmet snacks and live music in the ultralounge from 5:30-9 p.m.

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      Red Rock Resort, 11011 W. Charleston Blvd., 797-7777

      Somebody’s grandpa is napping discreetly in what looks like a set from an old Hollywood musical. Twin staircases wind around the island of white furniture on zebra carpet in the boldest red. With its vaulted ceiling and glittering trio of chandeliers the size of rockets, Red Rock’s Lobby Bar is only missing a grand piano. Design elements that could be gaudy are luxurious, thanks to soft tones, mod styling and an overall sense of balance. This showpiece busts the myth that neighborhood casinos leave the grandeur to the Strip.

      Red Rock Resort

      Swank as it is, the lounge doesn’t feel off-limits to those who just want to relax and enjoy the mellow electronic music. Another man sits down with coffee and a book, while a group of young backpackers eyes the sleek sofas from check-in. The central bar is empty this morning, but I can picture a pre-club round in the glow of the statement chandelier, a cascade of white Swarovski gems.

      Before the bar, the resort’s signature red glass doors open onto a main lobby echoing the desert landscape with dark wood planters of blunt-cut grass and cactus complementing the seating’s earth-tone palette and boxy silhouettes. That muted feel elevates details, like tables made of creamy stone slabs and an industrial sculpture of cast glass and stainless steel by New York artist Trinh Nguyen. The Friedmutter Group completed the interior design in the mid-2000s, but updates have kept the lobby fresh and glamorous, the kind of welcome you expect from Vegas. “I’m all for lobbies surprising you, and I’m all for lobbies not surprising you when I want to go for a quiet escape,” Sullivan says. “I’m all for it just blending into the background and being a beautiful oasis.”

      Sweet details: Behind the bar is a show of abstract light and color projected on five flat-screen TVs. And the “Twist” promo means half-priced martinis from 4-7 p.m. Monday-Thursday.

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      Four Seasons, 3960 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 632-5000

      Four Seasons is like a Manhattan—classic and always in good taste. Who needs a giant marquee or resident DJs when you have a reputation for impeccable quality spanning 38 countries and more than 50 years?

      Swaying palms and bright petunias give way to the lobby’s uncomplicated elegance. Recently renovated to blur the indoor-outdoor line with window walls and Ken Gangbar’s 17-foot “tree” of metal and glass, this place is made for power lunchers and savvy travelers. Press lounge suits both. The space is a chic cafe and bar, so the aesthetic is clean with pops of daring, like a towering foursome of white birdcage chairs in view of Richard MacDonald’s small bronzes of grinning, gorgeously contorted Cirque artists. With the lounge and check-in area almost blurring together, the lobby’s function is part of the entertainment, not to mention totally on-trend. “Being able to kind of look through spaces and see the people occupying them and moving about is really much more fun than just being locked into a really beautiful room with velvet walls,” Sullivan says.

      Four Seasons

      The early-afternoon crowd at Press includes a Frenchman and his mother sipping Stella Artois while waiting for a taxi, and a lone woman photographing a perfect plate of wood-fired tomato flatbread from the surprisingly un-fussy menu of small plates. There’s even a cotton candy of the day. The custom of meeting in the lobby, though, has always been about a civilized drink. It doesn’t get much more civilized than “One Glass/One Ice Cube” options ranging from $18 Blanton’s to $250 Remy Martin Louis XIII. And these are no ordinary ice cubes; they’re made in-house and melt deliciously slow, so fine spirits stay sharp to the very last sip.

      Sweet details: Press offers “social hour” daily from 9 p.m. until the bar closes, with half-price Stella drafts and flatbreads and glasses of house wine or Prosecco for $8. And the “paper” towels in the lobby bathroom are so luxe you’ll be tempted to take a set home.

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      Vdara, 2600 W. Harmon Ave., 590-2111

      Vdara’s patio is so tranquil I could swear there’s some invisible wall between it and the rest of Las Vegas. The real barrier is a reflecting pool, a tidy row of trees and atmosphere layered on by daybed swings, cut orchids in glass orbs and whimsical chairs that look balled from a million silver rubber bands.

      A radiant traveler reclines on a swing with a road-worn satchel in one hand and a fancy cocktail in the other. Her French “Red” 75 of Bombay, Aperol, Champagne and pomegranate looks tasty, but I’m in the mood for an espresso and a snack: lobster tacos or homemade churros still warm from the fryer. If I fancy hot cocoa or a pastry from the lobby’s Market Café instead, I’m told the patio is my oyster.

      Vdara

      Inside, the lounge’s skeleton of slivered wood and metal rises floor to ceiling, suggesting walls without obscuring the view of Peter Wegner’s die-cut paper works on steel. The geometric color fades of night and day echo the space’s dual identity. Vdara is a non-gaming hotel, so it doesn’t get as much random foot traffic, and a few hours of its peaceful finery are yours for the price of a perfect slice of bananas foster cheesecake. There are cities where a hotel this nice might frown on me losing track of time, though Sullivan says that attitude misses an important shift in hospitality. “There has been kind of a loose trend of breaking down those barriers and making people more welcome and making spaces feel less intimidating. ... You see people having fun, and the lobby becomes more of a place to inhabit and hang out.” Maybe that’s why the cushions at Vdara are stuffed exactly to the point of feeling like a hug.

      Sweet details: Somehow, even the purple crocodile bar façade manages to be refined. And this may be the only bar where chicken wings share a page with fresh lump crab salad served in an avocado sphere.

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