Destiny by Design
A thirty-three year old real estate broker opens a bed and breakfast in Brooklyn. He designs it himself; it's an overnight sensation. Some may call it luck, we call it destiny...
A quick glance at his popular Instagram and Breaker Lyon Porter may appear like one of those classically—and perhaps irritatingly—charmed people. His success, in combination with his Disney Prince-like appearance and background as a professional hockey player, makes him the target of a certain amount of undeserved sarcasm. But underneath the elements of superficial perfection, he is actually a strange anomaly: an artist who’s very first piece was a smash hit. Not a recipient of luck so much as a fulfiller of destiny.
His canvas is a bed and breakfast called Urban Cowboy. In his own words, he “built a cabin in the middle of Brooklyn” and it became a ready-made phenomenon. Within a year of opening, it was featured in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Travel + Leisure, Architectural Digest, and The Washington Post. Despite characterizing it as paradigmatically hipster, all publications fawned over Urban Cowboy, calling it “Brooklyn’s most unique hotel,“ and, “like visiting an old friend.”
Even more fascinating than the fact of his success is how he found it. He spent ages sixteen to twenty-five living in hotel rooms (literally) as a minor league hockey pro. Then another eight as a residential broker in New York City, running clients in and out of buildings all over the city. His ten thousand hours weren’t spent making interiors; he lived them.
So, after rising from the bottom to near the top of NYC real estate, he decided it was finally time to try his hand at his own creation. In this Breaker interview, we find out how Lyon Porter became one of New York’s most buzzed about hoteliers in the blink of an eye…
So… pro hockey. What was that like?
That was my whole life up to twenty-five. I left home at sixteen; played in fifteen cities in ten years. I made it to the AAHL, which is right before the NHL. Thirty-hour bus rides get a little old, but I loved it. It was my whole passion, diving head first into it, and it made me who I am today. You get traded middle of season, you change schools, you learn how to claw your way through these different levels. I wasn’t very good—I couldn’t skate very well—but I was persistent. My favorite quote is from Calvin Coolidge, “Persistence and determination are omnipotent.”
How did you bridge from hockey to real estate?
I started as a real estate broker, helping people find homes, and I built my business from the ground up. I started with $1500-1600 studios, and I sold a $65 Million building last year.
Was it a painful transition going from pro hockey player to the bottom of the tall NYC real estate ladder?
No. I found it exhilarating. I used a lot of the skills I learned in hockey. There’s so much rejection in real estate. You get hit in the face in hockey and you get punched in the face in real estate, every day. You just got to smile, dust yourself off, keep going.
When did you start thinking it was time to do your own thing?
As a broker, I got to see New York City from the inside out. I saw magical town houses in the Village. I saw these mountain views from towers in Midtown. One of the reasons I love real estate is that I believe the space you’re in affects you more than you know.
How did the concept for Urban Cowboy develop?
I didn’t know it was going to be a bed & breakfast when I started developing it. I just decided to build my dream house, and my dream house had garage doors on both sides and a hot tub and sauna in the backyard, and a cabin and wide-plank reclaimed floors. And an all white kitchen.
“The space you’re in affects you more than you know.”
How did you finance it?
I self-funded it. I focused on saving for my own projects when I was in grad school. Rather than work for someone else, I decided to keep going on brokerage and I saw that as the quickest way to become a principal.
Why do you think people responded to it so quickly?
My design is kind of like your favorite leather jacket—the more you beat it up the better it looks. I like spaces that feel lived in, that have a story. I hand picked every single piece, both in Brooklyn and Nashville [Urban Cowboy's second location. My great grandfather’s cigarette case is there.
Is it just the genius of the design that draws people?
No, it’s not just the design. It’s not a bar, it’s not a club, it’s not a restaurant. It’s more like, “How about you come over to my house?” Let’s sit around, let’s meet new people from all over the world. It’s not a hundred rooms—it’s attainable to have a conversation with everyone that’s there. I think there’s a magic to small.
Jersey, my partner in all this, helped create a community of locals and internationals, artists and people who didn’t want to stay in a hotel or people who stay in too many hotels. I know how soul-crushingly boring hotels are and I think you want someone to welcome you and say, “Hey, welcome home. Would you like a water or a whiskey?” It’s for those who want to have a real conversation, human interaction, and you can’t do that alone in a cinderblock room with a TV. We don’t have TVs at either property.
Does the mixing happen in the rooms?
No, no. There’s a big open parlor in Brooklyn and there’s several community parlors in Nashville. It’s all about the parlor hang, sitting around and meeting people.
“I think there’s a magic to small.”
Still, the design seems to be a major part of the appeal, as evidenced by the success of your Instagram account. Was Urban Cowboy really your first design project?
I had never done anything creative before this; this was my first design project. I found an amazing creative outlet and people have responded the way that they have. I’m actually wrapping up designing a town house for someone in Brooklyn, and a loft for someone else. I’ve become a designer on top of being a broker.
That’s very, very rare to have that level of talent that’s never manifested itself before age thirty-three. Were you someone who always indulged in the aesthetic of the places you were staying? Was it something you thought about?
I would always go into these town houses or apartments and I’d say, “I really like that” or “I don’t like that” or “They should have done it like this.” I saw a lot of places and I had opinions, but who am I? I’m just some real estate broker-ex-hockey player. I thought, “Who’s gonna listen to me?”
Is the aesthetic in Nashville different than in Brooklyn?
180° different, yeah. In Brooklyn, I wanted to honor the bones of the building and keep the Williamsburg feel, but also a bit rustic—rustic luxury. Nashville I would say is more opulent. It has a lot of art-deco inspiration. It was a Victorian mansion so I coined the phrase, “Southwestern Deco” because I played with a lot of geometric patterns. They have nothing to do with each other but they’re both very geometric.
The thing you’ve been talking about and I think have achieved very well is building community, which is something that so many different entities want right now, whether it be Neuehouse or the Ace Hotel. Why do you think people are craving community?
We’re surrounded by people constantly on their computers and iPhones. People are starved for those moments outside of their comfort zones, when they get to experience some sort of authentic connection with another human being. That chance you might have a conversation with a stranger. I want you to feel comfortable enough to spill your whiskey on the floor.
“I want you to feel comfortable enough to spill your whiskey on the floor.”
You used the word "luxury," but it seems like your price point is pretty accessible to everyone.
It’s attainable luxury. I don’t think my community of travelers gives a shit if there’s a chocolate on the pillow. They’d rather have some cool people in the living room with a glass of rosé. It’s the simple things in life.
What specific hospitality experiences have you been inspired by, as someone who has had so many?
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is incredible. Food wise, it’s fancy, but it’s not fancy just to be fancy. There’s a comfort to it. I think the best experiences are the ones where you lose yourself. You’re not sitting there going “That’s a 10/10. That’s a 9/10. This is good, but I’d change this or that.”
Any one specific hotel or staying experience that stands out as an example of when you “lost yourself”?
When I was thirteen I went to a survival camp in Wyoming in the Tetons. I stayed in a teepee and I could see all the stars better than I ever had in my entire life. It was a sense of freedom. So, after living in New York for a decade, I decided to build a cabin in Brooklyn.
written by Isaac Simpson