Dynamic Duos: SBE’s Sam Nazarian And Designer Philippe Starck On Courage

A rising young entrepreneur and a legendary French designer mix business with pleasure in a family of luxury hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs.


Sam Nazarian, founder and CEO of SBE
Philippe Starck, designer and architect


Nazarian: I think it’s magical that you can work with somebody you grew up admiring. We’ve created a friendship, a partnership, and more importantly, something like a little brother/big brother type of relationship that’s really evolved through time.

Starck: It’s imperative to fall in love with the person with whom you’re going to make a baby if you want a baby in good health. That’s what happened with Sam. If as a final goal we are to bring love and humor to a project, then you must from the beginning have love and humor. That’s what will guarantee the strength of the project and the final emotion.

In 2005, Nazarian and Starck entered a groundbreaking 15-year contract to partner in developing properties in North America, including Katsuya by Starck restaurants and a growing stable of SLS hotels (with a flagship remodeling of the historic Sahara in Las Vegas, set to open next year).

“We like to think that a hotel company doesn’t have to just be a hotel company,” Nazarian says. “A consumer gets exposed to you, say, through a nightclub or a restaurant. Then they mature and become a business traveler, and ultimately they travel to other markets where you have properties, and then one day they turn around and want to buy a residential unit. We’ve tried to create a portfolio of brands that can bring a customer in at a younger age and evolve with them. To do that you’re going to need a design partner who looks at the world the same way and sees the white spaces in these markets. The only way to execute in today’s market is by being courageous in design. And no one is more courageous than Philippe Starck.”


Nazarian, 38, says that visits to boutique hotels such as the Hudson in New York and the Delano in Miami, both of which Starck designed with former partner Ian Schrager, inspired him to go into the hospitality business. “I remember ‘aha’ moments where I said, That’s what I want to do with the rest of my life. Two of those experiences happened in hotels he’d designed.”


It took the inspired 26-year-old a year to get a meeting with Starck, but the designer was won over on the spot. “From the first second I understood that with that man we’re going to laugh, we’re going to create. We’re assuredly going to construct a body of work that will help people to meet the love of their lives, to have a work meeting that will change their lives. All the scenes of life could happen in the theater that we’re creating with Sam. He’s not a businessman, I’m not a decorator or an architect. We are metteurs en scène.”


Starck starts setting the visual scene after a brief from Nazarian on the basics—location, price point, customer base. “We talk and then, as I’m a solitary worker, I go off on my own. I design the whole project, and I come back with as many drawings as possible to make myself understood,” Starck says. “I explain the project with storyboards. I start with the entryway and I finish in the bed with your head on the pillow looking at the person next to you. I talk about the smell of coffee on a Sunday morning and the little ray of sunlight that’s going to hit the white sheets. We don’t talk about profitability or money or steel, aluminum, or glass. We talk about what our friends, our cultural tribe, are going to experience.”

Starck says that Nazarian “might see one scene as a bit stronger, more romantic, and I correct things if necessary. But I have never had a spiritual disagreement with him. Sometimes there are technical impossibilities or financial impossibilities, or legal or security reasons. There are 10,000 reasons why something can be complicated, and everything is more and more complicated, but we both understand that. And a material problem is extremely simple to resolve.”

Nazarian agrees about being in sync spiritually, though perhaps with speed limits. “Sometimes, because you’re dealing with somebody whose brain works at such a different velocity than most, it takes time for us to catch up,” he says.


“Philippe continuously pushes the envelope of unbelievable ideas,” Nazarian says. “Each property has what we call Philippe’s big idea.” For SLS South Beach, Starck wanted to embellish the pool area with a 12-foot-tall silver statue of a rubber duckie.


“At first I said, ‘We’re not gonna put a duck. Come on,'” Nazarian says with a laugh. “And he was like, ‘No no no no no. We need a duck, we need to break up the two pools. We need a visual, we need an identity.’ Internally we’re all like, ‘Are we really gonna build a 12-foot duck?’ So we build a 12-foot duck, and literally it is probably the most photographed duck in the world. It is so playful and so iconic to the property and it resonated through the branding of the hotel.”


Starck is delighted to say that he doesn’t remember having “one serious meeting” with Nazarian. “We don’t save lives, we’re not doctors, we’re not politicians,” reasons the designer. “We’re there simply to bring a bit of happiness, a bit of pleasure, a bit of comfort through hotels and restaurants. We play and we amuse ourselves a lot, but we play seriously and we amuse ourselves seriously,” he says. “That’s generally the secret to success.”

Read more pairings from Fast Company‘s 10th Annual Innovation By Design issue:

About the author

Kristin Hohenadel is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Slate, Los Angeles Times, Vogue, and Elle Decor.