The Man Behind the Strip

He's the designer responsible for the Bellagio, the Wynn, and the newly opened Encore hotel. As he prepares to retire, Roger Thomas reflects on a life with business partner Steve Wynn and how his aesthetic transformed the face of Las Vegas forever.

BY Steve Friess

May 05 2009 11:00 PM ET

During college Thomas began tapping his family's connections to break into the design universe. The Thomases summered in Newport Beach, Calif., so Parry Thomas arranged for his son to work in the Beverly Hills office of Yates Silverman, then the go-to design house for Vegas casinos and banks. Roger showed immediate flair, taking small assignments like the ceiling of an elevator at the now-gone off-Strip Showboat hotel, which he designed in Victorian-style stained glass. He would spend seven years running the Las Vegas office of Yates Silverman before the Wynns cornered him in 1982 at a benefit for the Nevada Dance Theatre.

"So, what are you up to?" Elaine Wynn asked at the time.

He was designing penthouses for the Stardust Hotel-Casino and had recently redone his first casino, the now-shuttered Lady Luck, in a Saturday Night Fever motif. ("Thank God that's gone," he blanches today.)

Steve jumped in. "I'm working on Victoria Bay," he said. "Come design the rooms for me."

Victoria Bay was a planned megaresort that was never built, but it became the basis for the Mirage, which opened in 1989, and Thomas spent the intervening years designing the high-roller rooms at the Golden Nugget for Wynn, the first truly extravagant suites in the city. When Wynn started planning the Mirage, he put Thomas in charge of the rooms but found himself continuously unhappy with proposals from designers for other parts of the resort. "He'd say, 'Nah, Roger can do better than that,' so I was assigned the coffee shop, the buffet, the meeting rooms, and the spa," Thomas recalls.

From then on he was the artist who filled in the details of Wynn's broad brushstrokes. The wildly successful Mirage sparked a building boom on the Strip and within the company, and it begat the pirate-themed Treasure Island, Wynn's 1993 play for the mid-market. Those were warm-up acts for Bellagio, the Italian-inspired resort with the famous dancing fountains, which was in turn a precursor to Wynn Las Vegas and now Encore.

One week before the 2,000-room curved bronze tower of Encore opened in December, Roger Thomas wore a pink hard hat with the name wynn emblazoned in clear rhinestones across the front. He stood outside with a crew of burly workmen trying to determine the precise positioning for a trio of 10-foot pale-green urns that stand inside a window at the front of the resort's lobby. "I just painted these yesterday-what do you think?" he asked flippantly.

You think the obvious thought: How does the head of design for a multibillion-dollar resort, a man responsible for the health of every flower, the placement of every bit of artwork, the resolution of a thousand little problems a minute, have the time to paint flowers and Greek mythological figures on some pottery just days before an opening?

"I was crazy nuts," he says weeks later, a grin pushing up the purple glasses on his craggy face, "but I needed a focal point there and I couldn't go out to buy it. It gave me was time to decompress and solve those problems."

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