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 06 2009 12:00 AM ET

Perhaps, but it also reflects the extent to which one man is so involved in the details of a building. He's caught moving various art objects to the precise spaces on tables where he wants them. "Most of the housekeeping crew, I've trained them and gone over it, and we've done photographs, but it's very difficult," he says, exasperated. "So I walk through the hotel all the time rearranging accessories."

Even more startling, though, is that Thomas has a story to go along with each of those accessories and design choices, right down to the laurel branches around that obscure corridor window. He explains, "I do that so that on your eighth trip through, there's something new you can discover. There are components of mystery in all my interiors."

To that end, Thomas spends his life traveling the globe spending Wynn's money, buying this eclectic pottery or those antique sconces or that unusually colored fabric and stowing it in the Vegas warehouse until there's an opportunity to deploy it. His indefatigable pace and encyclopedic knowledge of art, art history, and design are impressive. Elaine Wynn tried to keep up on a trip to Chicago a few years ago when they were seeking art for the Wynn Las Vegas rooms. "We started very early and we're going through various galleries, and everything we looked at, he could comment on," she recalls. "'This looks like such and such,' he'd say, and then I'd have to ask, 'What was such and such?'È‚f;" Inspirations can strike at any time and can bubble up from long-ago memories. The 25-foot drapery with hand-sewn roses that forms the backdrop for the dramatic sunken dining room at the Alex restaurant in Wynn sprang, for instance, from a memory of a Balenciaga ball gown Thomas saw in a Vogue more than four decades earlier, when he was 9.

One place from which Thomas does not get ideas, however, is other casinos. "I don't have any expectations of learning anything there," says Thomas, who in 2007 was included on Architectural Digest 's list of the world's top 100 designers. "I am specifically not wanting to be influenced by that stuff. I don't want it to pop up in my work. My learning takes place in museums, on walks in parks, in really great pieces of architecture."

A rowdy group of college-age men bounces by Thomas in the Encore casino just as he is explaining the process that produces the deep red glass of the room's chandeliers. They're the sort of fellows for whom Las Vegas was originally built, the kind who wouldn't notice a laurel branch adorning a window or the fact that the butterflies in the carpet represent not only the metamorphosis of lowly caterpillars into beautiful creatures but also, to Thomas, the transformation of sticks, glue, and wool into the beauty of a designed interior.

Far from being insulted by the lack of appreciation, Thomas watches them with a sense that he has pulled off something of a subversive victory for gays. "They reward my designs by laying down money, by using it to impress their girlfriends," he says. "They gain status from what I do; they gain pleasure whether they realize it or not. I don't have to be in their face about it."

Well, sometimes he does. He's a largely beloved figure even among the construction crews he bosses around, but in one famous instance, a worker arguing with Thomas on a job site muttered the word "faggot" as Thomas walked away. The designer swiveled on his feet, marched back up to the offender, and barked a line that would've made an Army drill sergeant proud: "That's Mr. Faggot to you." "He just said, 'Yes, sir,' very meekly," says Thomas, who could have had the man fired but didn't. "He wasn't used to anybody coming back at him with that kind of authority."

Thomas didn't need to school the Wynns on gay sensitivity. The couple are friends with the likes of David Geffen and Sandy Gallin. But after Steve Wynn asked his executives to donate to the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, Thomas leveraged the favor by urging Wynn to provide domestic-partner benefits for the company's employees.

Wynn and Thomas seem to have a comfortable gay-straight patter. Thomas will mock his boss when they disagree by saying, "I know you feel that way because you're straight. You can't help it. You were born that way, and nobody's perfect." For Wynn's part, on a pre-opening tour of Encore, the mogul pointed out female nude figures ensconced in gold along the walls of the nightclub XS. When asked whose idea that was, Wynn cracked, "Roger Thomas, if ya can believe that!"

While thomas has layered explanations for the Encore butterfly motif, his husband, fellow interior designer Arthur Libera, sees yet another. With the completion of Encore, Thomas concludes his service with the Wynns in June, turning over the pink hard hat to another gay designer, Jerry Beale, to focus on developing his furnishings line. It's not an unexpected decision -- he's been commuting to the home he and Libera share in Marin County, Calif., weekly for years -- and he's been itching to live somewhere other than Vegas.

"He's becoming the butterfly of many colors," says Libera, who married Thomas in 2005 in the first wedding to take place in the Wynn Las Vegas chapel. The pair were also wed in California last fall prior to the passage of Proposition 8. "He's leaving to be on his own to take full recognition of his own work."

The Wynns, supportive as they are, can't believe he'll soon be gone.

"I'm in denial," Elaine Wynn says. "Roger is our brother. It's right for him at this stage of his life to move on to whatever it is he wants to do now. It was divine intervention the day Roger came into our professional life. Roger got an opportunity to grow and make an extraordinary name for himself in projects that just don't exist anywhere else in the world. He was given multiple canvases to work on. It was very Medici-like."

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