A trip to New York involves many decisions: Broadway versus Off Broadway; when to give up trying to snare one of the 12 seats at Brooklyn's Blanca, the current culinary hot ticket; and at which of the city's countless boutique hotels you should rest your weary head. Will it be the intimacy of Robert De Niro's Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca, where your room's wire shopping basket is crammed with quintessentially American snacks - giant pretzels, popcorn, Reese's Pieces - and magically replenished daily? What about the grandeur of Ian Schrager's Gramercy Park Hotel, where Warhols and Hirsts cram the walls? Or André Balazs's Standard in the Meatpacking District, where beautiful people crowd the lobby, the bar, the grill and the halls? Perhaps you'll make Midtown your stamping ground, bedding down in the Beaux Arts beauty of the new Nomad. Or go straight to the Upper East Side's super-chic Mark, where Jean-Georges Vongerichten provides picnic baskets for lunch in Central Park and star snipper Frédéric Fekkai does your 'do.
Whatever your boutique-hotel persuasion, there's no arguing that Manhattan offers accommodation with a strong sense of personality and a tangible sense of place, supported by a food and bar scene that's as much a magnet for locals as for visitors. Let's just say that where New York excels, Australia still has a way to go.
But it's the model pioneered by the aforementioned Schrager - the Studio 54 nightclub co-founder who parlayed his knack for creating buzz into Morgans, NYC's original boutique hotel - that Amalgamated Holdings Limited aims to emulate with QT.
AHL, which owns and operates Greater Union, Event and Birch Carroll & Coyle cinemas as well as the Rydges Hotels & Resorts group, is behind the brand-new QT Sydney, now open at the busy junction of Market and George streets in the CBD.
The aim, says AHL managing director David Seargeant, is to boldly go where no other Sydney hotel has gone before. Designers Nic Graham and Shelley Indyk have followed the brief to the letter, ditching Sydney's penchant for hotel interiors on the wrong side of anodyne and creating a place that's all about strong colour, contemporary art, a fresh twist on historical details and a sense of humour.
The 200 rooms at QT Sydney occupy all but the bottom three levels of the Gowings building (UK high-street retail giant Topshop takes up residence in those) and all the office space of the State Theatre property, which AHL has owned since it was built in 1929.
Nic Graham, designer of the hotel's public spaces including the foyer, Gilt Lounge, Gowings Bar & Grill, Parlour Lane Roasters café and SpaQ, says blending the distinct personalities of the two buildings was the project's greatest challenge. The Gowings building's utilitarian lines, dark timber floors and male-oriented history lend this wing of the hotel a certain machismo. The original tallowwood floors have been retained and restored, as have many of the original timber doors (including a few that now lead to nowhere).
Striped carpets in the hallways speak to the suiting fabrics that were once Gowings' stock-in-trade. The original Gowings sign has been re-erected on the outside of the hotel, meaning those checking into the elegant corner suites might find themselves sleeping in the glow of a giant capital G.
By contrast, flamboyance and a touch of camp are the hallmarks of the State Theatre wing. The heritage timber panelling on the top-storey former executive level of AHL meant many a logistical challenge for Shelley Indyk, designer of the hotel's rooms and suites. "We were constrained in that we had to keep original panelling - not that we ever wanted to get rid of it, but it meant walls could not be moved. But all of the panelling had to come down, firewalls had to be built, and then the panelling had to go back," says Indyk. "I really do think this hotel is a first for Australia. It's a very different hotel, and there's a lot of design at every point."
Few Sydneysiders would know that the State Theatre building was once Australia's first multi-storey shopping centre. The old arcades are still evident in the wide corridors of the QT's State Theatre wing, and the new ochre-hued carpets are a nod to the golden terrazzo floors on which shoppers once walked. In the downstairs foyer, the original brass lines of the shopfronts run at angles along the floor, and have now been replicated on the ceiling.
Whimsical details abound in the rooms too, from Sydney sculptor Morgan Shimeld's metal wall sculptures (which mimic the reflections created by the buildings' steel-framed windows) to the Fabio Ongarato-designed "hands" holding the room numbers in the State Theatre wing.
Glass is a significant component of the hotel's design. There's the State Theatre building's new deco-style black glass and chrome façade, a reproduction of the original, which was removed during the Depression because of its perceived opulence. Rooms feature illuminated glass cabinets filled with cut-crystal pieces, their coloured glow providing warmth and light. Glass-topped trays hold the ingredients for the hotel's signature cocktail, the QT Espresso Martini, made with Belvedere vodka, Patrón XO Cafe tequila and freshly brewed espresso.
Top of the tree are the two State Suite penthouses, watched over by two giant stone gargoyles which have resumed their rightful place on the Gowings building's Market Street façade. The gothic gargoyles were removed during World War II amid fears that they would fall onto pedestrians should Sydney be bombed. The original pair was misplaced; new versions were re-created from historical images and then trucked up from Melbourne.
The State Theatre wing is also home to the QT's foyer and a private members' bar that Seargeant hopes will capture that free-form quality of the lobbies in those New York boutique hotels he so admires - transforming from quiet space by day to an extension of the bar by night, where, he says, "the lights come down a bit, the music's beats per minute go up a bit, and it's a far more buzzing party crowd".
Visitors might find themselves mesmerised by the voyeuristic hotel scenes playing on LED screens set into flocked velvet wall panels behind the reception desk, or by the music playing in the lifts that increases in volume and energy levels as more people step inside.
Also in the foyer is an installation by Swedish artist Michael Johansson in collaboration with Graham and his team. Johansson reinterprets found objects, and 30 per cent of his QT installation - a mix of old suitcases, televisions, lockers, desks and quirky signage - was foraged from the site; the rest from within a 30km radius.
Curator Amanda Love chose the major art pieces that bring the QT Sydney to life, including the huge Grant Stevens-designed video installation marking the entrance to Gowings Bar & Grill, where the furniture is a mix of vintage and purpose-built 1930s-inspired pieces, and Melbourne designer Fabio Ongarato's graphics feature on folding screens, behind bronze mesh panels and on the ceilings.
The Gowings Bar & Grill occupies the third-storey corner of the Gowings building, with its huge windows letting in views of the (surprisingly grand) Myer Sydney property and the freshly scrubbed Queen Victoria Building, plus the occasional glimpse of the monorail.
The sexy European-style brasserie is overseen by chef Robert Marchetti, co-owner of Melbourne's Giuseppe Arnaldo & Sons and Sydney's North Bondi Italian Food. "The hardest thing for us is getting food and beverage right," says Seargeant. "Every little detail has to be perfect; Sydney's a tough, tough market. And to me, Marchetti is a chef's chef in that he knows the market very well and what the market is currently receptive to, which is… not ego-driven food, it's real food that people love to eat."
Upstairs from the Gowings Bar & Grill is Gilt Lounge, where dark colours and the use of steel and timber lend an industrial edge. The urbane lounge bar targets the pre- and post-theatre crowd as much as the beau monde, the sumptuous VIP area fitted with heavy velvet curtains to shield it from prying eyes.
Attention to detail is everywhere at QT, from the movie-star photographic montages on the bathroom walls in the restaurant to the restored costume cabinets that dominate the ground-level foyer. (The State Theatre's existing two original costume cabinets were restored; another three were reproduced to the same specifications and reinstated.)
Seargeant is unapologetic about his wish to attract energetic, young and creative types. "Hottest ticket in town, that's the plan. The art community's really important to us, as is fashion, design and architecture. Entertainment also, because we're in the film industry. Young entrepreneurs involved in technology. We need them all in the hotel because they're interesting people. We want the hotel to be full of interesting people."
QT Sydney follows the transformation of the former Gold Coast International Hotel and the former Rydges Sabaya in Port Douglas into QTs by AHL. As at those two hotels, costume designer Janet Hines is responsible for the staff uniforms, most of which are as far from corporate gear as you can possibly veer. Where QT Port Douglas dresses its baristas in board shorts and its waitresses in retro-printed miniskirts, Sydney staff sport "edgy and urban" garb, and that even goes for the "shaveologist" presiding over the mezzanine-level barbershop.
Now that his group has delivered Sydney a boutique hotel with plenty of personality, Seargeant says there are plans to take the QT formula Australia-wide. "Compared to most major cities, we're so lacking. New York, LA and right throughout Europe, they're full of dynamic offerings. And for us, it's really about embracing the city and the neighbourhood and also making sure the staff are interesting people who can suggest interesting places that you couldn't normally find or be steered towards. Interesting design stores like Koskela and Pure and General, a restaurant that might have only opened two days ago, an art show on tomorrow at Roslyn Oxley 9 galleries, things that take you into the fabric of a city. That's what we want to do here."
QT Sydney, 49 Market St, Sydney, NSW, (02) 8262 0000. Rooms from $420.
PHOTOGRAPHY ALANA LANDSBERRY