All hotels are designed, of course, but not all hotels are design hotels. The design hotel as we know it was born on October 10, 1988, on West 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan. She was named the Royalton. Her parents were the Studio 54 nightclub impresarios Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell; the midwife was the Gallic polymath Philippe Starck, creator not only of zeitgeist-defining interiors such as those of the Royalton but also of the most beautiful stainless-steel fruit juicer the world has ever seen.
It is difficult to overstate the influence the Royalton had on our collective notion of what a hotel should be and how it should look. Crucially, it also recalibrated our sense of how a hotel should make us feel (i.e. cooler, richer, and sexier than we would feel if we were anywhere else). True, there were precursors to the design hotel, notably the “total look” hotels of the early 1960s, by Arne Jacobsen, Gio Ponti, and others. But the Royalton rewrote the rule book.
The rule book has undergone many revisions since then, as the pendulum of aesthetics has swung from severe monochromatic minimalism to full-on, no-tassels-barred maximalism and back again. This dynamism has been a source of much delight to travelers over the past 20-odd years – a pageant of virtuosity, flair, wit, and whatever-next whimsicality.
So where are we right now? And where are we going in the year or so ahead? Certainly 2014 was a big year for the restoration of grand historic hotels. The Peninsula Paris, the Park Hyatt Vienna, and the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Quebec City were all triumphs, deeply respectful of the past but not stuck in it. The lobby of The Peninsula Paris [pictured top] is an elegant, persuasive example of how this precarious equilibrium can be achieved.
It was a big year, too, for what is known as “adaptive reuse.” In London, the drab offices of a bankrupt shipping firm were magicked into the Mondrian; a multistory car park blossomed into The Beaumont; and a chilly Victorian fire station reopened in a blaze of glory as the Chiltern Firehouse.
More broadly, perhaps the strongest undercurrent affecting the design of hotels at the moment is a desire to assert a meaningful connection between a property and its surroundings. Expect, therefore, to see more hotels making an effort to fit in while standing out.
This is an impulse that can express itself in any number of different ways. One way is through visual echoes of natural or cultural phenomena. Take the new Rosewood Beijing, for example. “The hotel’s design,” says managing director Marc Brugger, “honors the history and rich culture of the city from a fresh and contemporary perspective.”
This sounds airy and vague, but in fact it is grounded in exquisite specifics. See how the hotel’s 22-story exterior of Mongolian bluestone recalls the profile of a mountain as depicted in 12th-century Chinese landscape painting, and how its soaring lobby is discreetly arranged around a series of pavilion-like silhouettes.
Another way is more confrontational – to start a shouting match with your neighbors rather than engage in a polite, measured dialogue. At first glance, Raffles Istanbul, with its blank acres of shimmering steel and glass, seems light years away from the intricate Byzantine beauty of heritage Istanbul. It is – and that is the point. It is a mirror of how Istanbul wishes to see itself today and tomorrow – not as a time capsule but as a city with the energy, thrust, density, and per-square-foot property prices to match New York, Hong Kong, or Sydney.
“We strive to become part of the local community, offering guests something more than just a luxury city hotel,” says Kit Kemp, co-owner of Firmdale Hotels, and designer of another of 2014’s success stories, Ham Yard Hotel in London’s Soho. “This makes guests feel part of the adventure of traveling, not estranged from their surroundings.” Her aim is to create “a sincere and timeless feel, rather than the feel of a fashion fad, which will date… a neighborhood experience.” This, she adds, is the idea behind Ham Yard Village, a cluster of boutiques around the hotel that extend it into the community.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Ham Yard, incidentally, also has a bowling alley. A 1950s one, imported from Texas, which is open to guests until three o’clock in the morning. Frivolous? Quite. But these things matter. They are fun riffs on the “on-site experiences” – the branded spas, wellness centers, state-of-the-art gyms, screening rooms, and Michelin-starred restaurants – that luxury travelers have come to expect. Hence the presence of an ice-skating rink at the red-hot Miami Beach Edition (Schrager again) and a 280-seat theater for live cabaret at the nearby Faena – an all-singing, all-dancing Art Deco fantasia, stage-managed by Baz Moulin Rouge Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin.
A hotel should make us feel cooler, richer, and sexier than we would feel if we were anywhere else
The other great trend of the moment is the proliferation of hotel “residences.” This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, but lately the concept has gained traction. Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Mandarin Oriental, and Bvlgari lead the field, selling specially designed residences with the full complement of à la carte hotel services. As Mandarin Oriental’s Javier Hortal says, “They bring the luxury hotel experience into the realm of home ownership, and provide the reassurance of top quality and service associated with a premium hospitality brand.”
Meanwhile, The Pierre in New York, now part of the Taj portfolio, has launched an official residential stay program for those who fancy a Fifth Avenue pied-à-terre without going the whole hog and buying an apartment. Guests with reservations for 30 or more consecutive days enjoy special perks, such as access to a dedicated “manager,” use of a Jaguar “house car,” personalized housekeeping, and in-room spa treatments.
From the hotel’s point of view, these residential-stay guests are especially attractive – the suites they’re booking command top dollar (from $20,000 to $100,000-plus a month) and are usually empty half the time. Demand for residential-stay suites at The Pierre since the program launched has been overwhelmingly strong. Other hoteliers with suites to fill in prestige properties in the great cities of the world will no doubt be taking to the street in hot pursuit of the same clientele in 2015 and beyond.