We had an early morning breakfast scheduled in Society Cafe at Encore. We were there to take a tour of Encore, Steve Wynn’s newest project in Las Vegas. The restaurant was comfortable and green. Not just one kind of green, but multitudes of green, like a painting. A well-dressed gentleman sits down at our table and we begin to talk….
“The room we are sitting in came about because I love reading Oscar Wilde. So I thought it would be fun to do a room for Oscar. Like a club he would hang out in. But this would be a little too loud and wrong for the time period he lived in. Larger than life and completely irreverent. Like Oscar Wilde.”
The speaker should know. As Executive Vice President of Design for Wynn Design and Development, Roger Thomas is the de facto design guru of Las Vegas, and therefore of much of the visible hospitality spectrum.
The relationship between Steve Wynn and Roger Thomas approaching design is symbiotic. Roger is the great interpreter of Wynn’s vision. Together they have changed the way millions have viewed and experienced Las Vegas. Beginning with the Golden Nugget, Thomas has overseen every major project with a Wynn label, including the Bellagio, Mirage and Encore.
If there were Vegas bluebloods, the name ‘Thomas’ would certainly be at the top of the list. Although born in Salt Lake City, Roger Thomas has lived most of his life in Vegas. His father, E. Parry Thomas, was instrumental in the development of Las Vegas. The senior Thomas ran the Bank of Las Vegas- the first financial institution that gambled on funding casinos. His persuasion allowed much of the subsequent development on the Strip. The UNLV Thomas & Mack center? He’s the Thomas.
Roger Thomas’ sense of style carries through to his clothing. From the top (glasses) to the bottom (those shoes!), Thomas is the breathing visualization of the Wynn-Thomas mind-meld. A mental sponge and primarily self-taught, his knowledge is encyclopedic. The conversation ran rampant through ideas, influences and semi-obscure references.
We’re eating. “The sticky bun is incredible. They pour the sticky over it so it is super sticky,” Roger says. We nod in agreement and launch into conversation.
Bonnie: Were you involved with the design of the Golden Nugget.
Roger: The original design was Henry Conversano from Oakland. I got involved and redid all of the rooms in the tower. These rooms were initially designed for a project called Victoria Bay which was originally where Wet ‘N’ Wild was supposed to be. The economy just wasn’t right. When the Mirage opportunity arose many of the concepts of Victoria Bay became the Mirage. In that interim I came onboard with Steve (Wynn).
Hugh: So what is your background?
R: I grew up here (in Las Vegas). I ended up going to Interlochen Arts Academy in Northern Michigan where I was a metalworking major for a year and a ceramics major for a year. Then I was invited to Boston University to attend. Which I thought was cool. But in the end I came from a school with an advanced arts program to a school where you weren’t allowed to use color for the entire first year. So I left Boston University to go to the Boston Museum School (School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) where I was accepted as a second semester junior. I bounced from one major to the next, learning all of these media spending most of my time in ceramics. I really liked William Wyman (1922-1980; ceramic professor at SMFA). I ended up in my academic career at Tufts, which allowed me to write a curriculum of my own. I studied Native American Art History and did an intensive study on the effect of Anglo-Saxon traders on Navajo textiles.
I grew up in homes here that were designed by Jinny Lee Snow- a Cranbrook graduate who had the loom next to Jack Larsen. She was there with Saarinen, Eames, Nelson… the whole group. I grew up curled up in Saarinen womb chairs. I had that whole vocabulary and I loved the interior I grew up in.
My parents were from Salt Lake City. They went to college with Jinny at the University of Utah. After University Jinny and her husband (V. Douglas Snow, noted Utah artist, 1927-2009) went to Cranbrook for graduate school. V.Douglas earned a Fulbright scholarship to Rome. The Snows treated me during my entire childhood as if I were an adult. Doug would talk to me about art as if I were an adult; Jinny would talk to me about design as if I were an adult.
During the time I was in school I worked for Yates-Silverman, which was in Los Angeles (ed. note: they currently now have an office in Las Vegas). I worked as an interior designer throughout all my schooling and that is what I knew when I graduated from school. I was too afraid to become a painter as I didn’t want to go through the starving part.
H: So your background is training in the Arts?
R: I’m really trained in Studio.
H: So when was the big switch?
R: When I had to get a job. I started a firm here with a partner, Sally Miller, whom I knew from Yates-Silverman. Charles Silverman then asked me if I would open his Las Vegas office. I headed that for about 6.5 years, when Steve (Wynn) said, “So what are you doing kid? I’m working on a project call Victoria Bay and I can use a mind like yours.” Mostly he was doing my father a favor; trying to honor my father. So I went to work for Steve thirty years ago last April Fool’s Day.
When we built the Mirage I was going to do the rooms and in presentations Steve just gave me about half of the Mirage.
H: As I walk through Encore, I see approximately 20 different chair designs that appear to be done by you. These designs are significantly different…
R: In the course of doing this over the years I realized that if I wanted my places to look different from everybody else’s places I had to design the stuff that went in them and have it manufactured. I wanted to learn how to manufacture. I love the process and the learning process. I wanted our places to be unique and I didn’t want anyone to walk through and say they have seen it at (name another property). I wanted it to be unique.
H: So what is the process to manufacture your designs?
R: Once I design something in my studio it goes out to bid to 6 or 8 people. Then we look at the three best prices and we decide who the best to make it is. Then we go through the prototype process and factory visits.
H: The quality is great. I’ve seen lacquered items in newer properties which are basically falling apart six months after placement.
R: I have a secret weapon. I have one of the best engineering departments to back me up. We have better maintenance than anyone else. Marty Brown has been with Steve since he was a kid. His expectations are as high as his. Steve demands that we do it right and he gives us enough money to do it right.
H: So basically the design process is you. You oversee everything?
R: I oversee even our consultants. But Todd Lenahan (of ABA design) did all of the suites, all of the rooms and the spa in this building (Encore). I attended the design presentation meetings and I would suggest bits of changes but nothing that would alter his core concept. I basically do the concept, even if I have another studio doing the documents.
H: When you wake in the morning and say, “Screw it. I need a day off,” who do you call?
R: (Laughs) That hasn’t occurred to me yet.
H: So your retirement plans are greatly exaggerated.
R: I would have retired but my (retirement) disappeared. So I’m reinventing my path to retirement.
H: It’s fairly obvious that you have a lot of influences here. You travel a lot. You have a lot of perks. Nevertheless, I don’t envy you. I know how much micromanagement I need to do. It’s a little crazy.
R: I go through every detail. Every single product selection. Every material selection. Every profile of a molding. Every intersection. I now have Jerry Beale along for the ride. He headed Trina Wilson’s Los Angeles office for 20 years. This guy has technical proficiencies I never dreamed of having.
H: What is going on the Strip?
R: My policy is to stay in Wynn World. Be concerned about what you need to do to make us successful.
H: What about the new build out by Wynn on the Strip?
R: This is the most shocking development any of us have ever experienced. You build on the strip so that you can have a front door on the strip. We build a front door on the strip and a north port-cochere and a big atrium in the front. So we open our doors and expect everyone to walk in the front. They don’t. Because it is so much easier to get in through the south door. The loneliest job in the world was the valet at the north door. So we tore off the port-cochere and we are building a massive beach club. Three pools, a beach club and a night club. There is a new plaza to enter encore or go to the beach club. Surrender the new nightclub is on the atrium in the casino. Sean Christie (Blush) and his crew. My original concept was ‘original sin.’ That is what everyone who is going to a nightclub is hoping to accomplish. We wanted one word. So “Surrender. “ (editor’s note: Surrender and the Beach Club opened Memorial Day, 2010)
H: People see what you do and they think you can buy this stuff. The problem is they can’t. So a lot of these other places look like someone cut images out a magazine and made a pastiche. Is that the best form of flattery or is that just where you stand?
B: You know, Metropolitan Home used to do that High and Low segment.
R: I don’t look at it so much as flattery as opportunity lost. I think designers’ and artists’ modus operandi, what makes them tick, is a basic inferiority complex. I think a lot of what they do is the result of them feeling inferior so they look for things to do that were already successful. Really they probably have an original idea that was a better solution. I’m allowed to spend the time, the energy and the money to do the R & D. When we did the lamps over the gaming tables at Wynn we had two years of Research and Development. That was a very simple problem- get a chandelier that sees every card on a table. But it took us a two years to prove it to everybody. With minor adjustments.
H: Do you think that the security you found with Jinny Lee (Snow) helped?
R: I think she gave me a sense of adventure. I think a lot of what I did in the beginning was derivative of what she showed me. I didn’t realize that everything you are doing creatively yourself is filtering everything that came your way anyway. That inferiority complex that we have means that sometimes I do things that I think are a bit derivative and I don’t realize that they are original and filtered. Sometimes it takes other people to show that
B: Even Frank Lloyd Wright said that he didn’t have any outside influences when clearly he had a lot of Asian influence- he was a collector of Japanese prints. There is no way you can walk through the world and not be influenced by something.
R: The way he (Wright) divided interior space was so much like the interior of Japanese buildings. What it comes down to is “celebrate the influence.”
R: Our Macau property is smaller and we wanted a different kind of light quality. Every single lamp in the place has a cosmetic peach lamp. If you don’t look good in our property in Macau you had better get to a hospital. The whole podium’s color is based on imperial yellow. Only the imperial family was allowed to use this for 250 years. I call it ‘mango’ because I added a little pink and orange to imperial yellow.
H: Was there any sort of controversy?
R: No. Steve wants me to color like Matisse. He knows Matisse was the greatest colorist of the twentieth century. I think arguably he was. We can relate on that. He owned a painting- the color scheme was basically watermelon and mango, with these incredible thalo greens. ‘(‘Still Life With Vase of Anemones, Lemons and Pineapple” 1925) I took that mango color and I never got over it. I thought, “What can I do in Asia that honors Asia that honors us?” Steve loves color, so all of the rooms in Asia are lacquered red and gold, which is the color scheme of every holiday that Asia has. Historically the most prestigious color is imperial yellow. You were put to death if you owned imperial yellow and you weren’t imperial.
H: So you did a democratization of color?
H: You’ve been working in Vegas for at least 30 years. Artistically, I sometimes feel that we are working in a vacuum. I think we are like Sisyphus. Are we getting anywhere?
R: I think it is because we live here. When you push the rock up the hill everyday and it slides back down, you don’t notice that centimeter you have gained. The problem is that it is too infinitesimal to measure on a day by day basis.
H: Thirty years of progress. Do you think we have gained a foot?
R: Thirty years of progress is huge. I can’t believe that we still don’t have an art museum.
H: I think it was done Vegas style. I wonder what we are really trying to do.
R: I think there is also an insecurity problem here. If you can get it here it is not good. I think monied Vegans think you have to go out of town for it.
B: We had the same problem in Detroit. I think that is typical of a lot of things. When we were in Detroit people wanted to buy our product from New York or L.A.
R: It is a cultural tourism phenomenon. We all want souvenirs. Part of it is the experience. If I go downtown it isn’t the same experience (elsewhere); nor is it a good story.
B: One of the things Danny Greenspun (Las Vegan) said was that we had a very unique culture unlike any in the world. It is what it is. It is very on the surface. Sitting in a room like this. This is our culture.
R: That is basically what Antoine Predock (architect) said when he was here at a dinner hosted by Robin (Greenspun). He said Vegas is just like Rome. In Vegas, all of the power runs on the surface- like the aqueducts, the Appian Way. All of the power was on the surface. It was used as a statement. The buildings here say what they are just like the buildings in Rome. ‘I am the Coliseum, I am the center.’ I think Danny is right. Are we going to end up like Rome? Who knows? I won’t be around long enough.
Part Two: The Tour
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