LONDON — Before boutique hotels, lobbies were where you checked in, not a nightclub where loitering models dared you to check them out.
But nearly 20 years after Ian Schrager’s Morgans opened its doors, drinking cosmos next to the concierge’s desk is old hat, and Westin’s W chain has reduced the boutique formula to paint-by-the-numbers style for business travelers on a budget. Schrager himself is grappling with a boatload of debt weighing down his hotel empire (he recently renegotiated $355 million in loans) and his chief designer, Philippe Starck, has designed housewares for Target anyway. And in this economy, who wants to pay $400 for an all-white hotel room where you can’t figure out how to work the shower, or you trip over a stuffed sheep in the lobby?
Isn’t the fashion hotel deeply out?
Probably — but there are still pockets of true believers, and it’s no coincidence that a big one happens to be Wallpaper. “Is there a future for the fashion hotel?” the magazine’s editors asked last weekend in a panel discussion at London’s 100% Design fair.
The answer, of course, was “yes,” but only after a lively debate on what, if anything, boutique hotels should stand for two decades after the debut of Morgans’ chic minimalism, which is now on sale at Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn. Morgans designer Andrée Putman was joined on the panel by Wallpaper editors Suzanne Trocme and Jeroen Bergmans, Great Eastern Hotel managing director Nicholas Rettie, and self-proclaimed “maximalist” designer Fabio Novembre, whose Li Cuncheddi in Sardinia is home to the aforementioned sheep.
The group quickly settled on several truths that it held to be self-evident. Minimalism, they agreed, is done.
“How can you be young and be minimal at the same time?” Novembre asked rhetorically. “It’s empty. It’s not the poetry of an open page — it’s blank paper. There’s nothing written.”
Even Putman, a high priestess of minimalism, dismissed other temples of the form, particularly London’s almost brutalist Hempel and its seas of white space. “When you hear the description, you want to go there,” Putman said, “and when you experience it, you want to go home.”At the center of their critique was the idea that hotels are homes away from home (and, in the case of some of the boutique rooms, really tiny abodes). In its place, they proposed that boutique hotels should be miniature wonderlands, filled with Novembre’s sheep or the oversexed black bedrooms of his Una Hotel in Florence. “A house is like a wife, and a hotel is a geisha — beautiful and exciting and you may never see her again,” Putman said. “You have to invent an incredible array of small surprises.”
They were also united in their contempt for the knockoff hotel, particularly Westin’s W chain. “If you think about W,” Rettie said, “it’s the classic example of a big chain thinking that ‘anything Ian Schrager can do, we can do better.’ ” And as for Schrager himself, who has become virtually synonymous with the boutique hotel concept in America, “We should all stand up for Ian,” Rettie said. “He opened up the hotel concept — he introduced sex appeal and fun into hotels.”
“It’s not accidental that he was first a nightclub owner,” Novembre added, referring to Schrager’s earlier career as co-owner of Studio 54. “The whole experience is borrowed from nightclubs. It’s a nightclub with rooms.”
Schrager is also the model of today’s struggling hotelier — the combination of the recession and the post-9/11 crash in travel has left boutique owners scrambling to fill rooms. At the Hudson, Schrager’s “budget” boutique hotel in New York (where some rooms can be had for $99), Midwestern tourists with fanny packs now occupy the lobby bar instead of the louche occupants its owner intended.
“There’s a danger of us considering the W as wannabes,” Rettie conceded. At the Metropolitan, another posh London hotel, “you’d think the top account would be a fashion house. It’s Lehman Brothers. Suits. Hoteliers are advertising to the fashion and art crowd, but in actuality, 80 percent of the guests are business travelers.”
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