Today’s Las Vegas is not exactly the kitsch-gone-wild, pulsating lights environment that Elvis Presley and Liberace made their stomping grounds. Both on and off the Strip you’ll find eye-popping, creative, thoroughly contemporary design.

The main attraction at the popular Neon Museum (770 N. Las Vegas Blvd. Tel: 702-387-6366. www.neonmuseum.org) is a boneyard containing signage from Las Vegas’ most iconic, seminal and, in some cases, long-gone and forgotten hotels and establishments. Those include The Palms, Golden Nugget and Stardust, and walking through these snaking remains during a one-hour guided tour is an opportunity to take in classic, quintessential Las Vegas-style design.

Yet, today’s Las Vegas is not exactly the kitsch-gone-wild, pulsating lights environment that Elvis Presley, Jerry Lewis and Liberace made their stomping grounds. Both on and off the Strip you’ll find eye-popping, creative, thoroughly contemporary design. The city’s five-year-old Smith Center for the Performing Arts (361 Symphony Park Ave. Tel: 702-749-2000. www.thesmithcenter.com) for one, offers theatrical productions that combine technology and derringdo beyond anything you’d see elsewhere, and buildings that add pure 21st-century international sophistication to the landscape.

Interestingly, a number of RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni have settled down in Las Vegas, drawn in part by this mix. Season eight’s Britney impersonator Derrick Barry and season nine’s Farrah Moan and Kimora Blac are among the local residents. “I mean, its not the same to be in New York or Paris,” says season three and All-Stars competitor Yara Sofia, “but at least you have a taste [of those places] and that suits me just fine.”

Sofia, aka Gabriel Ortiz, moved to Las Vegas at the urging of another Las Vegas–based RPDR alumni, Coco Montrese, and currently performs at the glitziest gay dance club in town, the Fruit Loop’s Piranha Nightclub (4633 Paradise Rd. Tel: 702-791-0100. www.piranhavegas.com), and at a weekly Drag Brunch at Senor Frog’s (3300 S. Las Vegas Blvd. Tel: 702-337-7577. www.senorfrogs.com/las-vegas).

So if design’s your high card, here are some of the absolute musts to check out when in Las Vegas.

Architect Paul Revere Williams’ curvaceous 1961 La Concha Motel Lobby serves as The Neon Museum’s visitor center and entrance. The only way to see the Neon Boneyard is via a one-hour guided tour, which is offered both day and night: The collection was expanded in 2017 by an additional 30 signs to boot. Since tours can get fully booked, it’s recommended to reserve tickets in advance via its website. February saw the addition of an incredible, technology-driven “augmented reality” evening tour that features 3D sound and projections that bring 40 signs back to life (tickets cost $23 for visitors, $15 for tourists). The museum’s gift shop, by the way, is a treasure trove of mugs, shirts, and other merchandise that pays homage and recreates the logos and imagery of old-school Las Vegas casinos.

Zuma at the Cosmopolitan
Zuma at the Cosmopolitan

 

Farther south down the Strip, The Cosmopolitan (3708 Las Vegas Blvd South. Tel: 702-698-7575. www.cosmopolitanlasvegas.com) is positioned close to the angular David Libeskind and David Rockwell-designed Crystals shopping center. Here, contemporary art, design, and hip brands and fashion rule. Summer 2017 saw the kickoff of an extensive refresh of 2,895 guest rooms led by NYC/Paris-based Virserius Studio, whose portfolio includes the Renaissance Paris La Defense Hotel; Gansevoort Hotel’s Ono lounge; and Durban, South Africa’s Big Easy Winebar & Grill. These refreshed rooms and suites boast neutral tones with splashes of violet and blue, and retro-tinged fixtures.

The literally central, must-see attraction at The Cosmopolitan, however, is The Chandelier Lounge, which entails a massive, multi-tiered, draping crystal chandelier that cuts through the retail and dining atrium, with three distinct bar areas. Billed as a sophisticated sanctuary, the “inside the chandelier” section is quite the experience, offering a menu of deliciously inventive cocktails with molecular flourish. Mixologist Mariena Mercer’s signature Fire Breathing Dragon derives its name from nitrogen-charged raspberries that, when chomped, unleash a smoke-like effect.

Cocktails are also given the high-design treatment at The Cosmopolitan’s Zuma (Tel: 702-698-2199. www.cosmopolitanlasvegas.com/restaurants/zuma) restaurant. Opened in 2017, this latest branch of the international Japanese izakaya-inspired/sushi nirvana is just as visually dazzling in its design and culinary presentation as is found at its growing roster of sister venues (London, NYC, Hong Kong, Dubai, and Miami among them). Noriyoshi Muramatsu’s Tokyo-based Studio Glitt puts natural elements, including a petrified tree and stone, to truly cinematic use. The food and drinks are downright Instagram-able, particularly the tasty “Fish in a Bag” libation, a citrusy, herb-flecked gin and tonic with a presentation that’s meant to resemble a goldfish in a plastic bag.

Yellow Tail Sashimi with Jalapeño at Nobu at Caesar’s Palace
Yellow Tail Sashimi with Jalapeño at Nobu at Caesar’s Palace

Nobu (3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd. Tel: 702-785-6674. www.noburestaurants.com/las-vegas-caesars-palace/experience) at Nobu Hotel Caesars Palace is also a dazzler, and ridiculously tasty (foodwise of course). There are actually two Nobu locations in Las Vegas, but this is the larger venue. In fact, with a main dining and lounge area at over 11,000 square feet, it’s the world’s largest Nobu to date. The Japanese notion called “wabi sabi,” meaning “simplicity and beauty in natural states,” was put to use during the design process: dark and woody furnishings, unrefined finishes, bamboo columns, and overhead pillow-like paper lanterns that evoke plucked urchin shells.

Las Vegas’ popular downtown Fremont Street, received a shot of hipster design, businesses, and arts complements of Zappos CEO Tony Hseih, who pumped $350 million into a revitalization dubbed the Downtown Project about six years ago. The transformed area now includes a cool and very queer-friendly indie bookstore, The Writer’s Block (1020 Fremont St. Tel: 702-550-6399. www.thewritersblock.org), and outstanding Downtown Container Park (707 Fremont St. downtowncontainerpark.com), which is hard to miss thanks to a firebreathing, giant praying mantis out front. Filled with boutique businesses, the park’s second level sit-down restaurant, Downtown Terrace, is insanely tasty, while The Dome presents immersive 4D entertainment.

4D doesn’t begin to describe the imaginative, overwhelming sensory experiences that Cirque du Soleil (www.cirquedusoleil.com/las-vegas) offers in Las Vegas. The Québec-based outfit pushes the envelope with elaborate choreography, stunts and technology at most of its Las Vegas productions (there are seven, if counting Criss Angel’s Mindfreak). Michael Jackson comes back to life via life-sized hologram during “Man in the Mirror” at Mandalay Bay’s Michael Jackson ONE. The Beatles appear via projections at The Mirage’s The Beatles LOVE; and warriors of ambiguous gender/sexuality do gravity-defying battle on a revolving stage with touchscreen technology for precise, interactive projection effects in MGM Grand’s KA (which cost about $165 million to mount).

Each production represents an amalgamated marvel of design in multiple disciplines: costumes, music, choreography, sets (which are extensive custom builds), and even the seating. One unique example entails how, during several productions, music emanates from the seats to help point audience members’ attention to the direction of action they might miss, including performers that suddenly drop down from the ceiling via flying rigs.

Nobu
Nobu

“It’s part of our DNA that we want everything to be four dimensional and break the wall,” says Calum Pearson, Cirque’s senior director for technical show support. “We want to create multiple entry points, so you never know where the action will come from next and the challenge is to direct your focus to where it is.”

“We really let the respective teams go off and create,” he elaborates. “It all becomes complementary. The set design, light  and projection guys will all engage. LOVE changed just recently. The original intent was a tribute to the legacy of The Beatles, and we brought them back via projections to embrace the vitality of the music. So we changed the stage to become a projection surface, and once you have that fourth dimension you can have the artist interact with them. We don’t want to create museum pieces, we want to create living art.”

The Las Vegas skyline is certainly alive, with a host of new architecture and design projects. To begin, Las Vegas Convention Center District Project, is a massive expansion and renovation of the center that includes a new exhibit hall and outdoor spaces.

Macau is considered the Las Vegas of the East, and Resorts World has built a massive, 3,000-room Chinese-themed project on the site where the iconic, old-school Stardust used to exist. It boasts authentic Asian cuisine, a 100,000-square-foot casino, and ultra-chic tech-forward design on a level with what’s seen in today’s Shanghai.

Meanwhile, MGM Resorts International has spent around $450 million to completely reinvent the Monte Carlo as two distinct hotels: the luxurious 2,700-room Park MGM, which is now home to the new 5,200 Park Theater and the Southwest’s first Eataly, and the 292-room The NoMad Las Vegas, a sibling to NYC’s buzzy NoMad.

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