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Charm Offensive

Design critic and cultural commentator Stephen Bayley – memorably dubbed ‘the second most intelligent man in Britain’ – has written more than ten books and countless articles. He founded the London Design Museum and has worked as a consultant for clients such as Coca-Cola and Ford. Tom Wolfe said of him: “I don’t know anyone with more interesting ideas on style, design and popular taste.”

“The first thing I do when entering a hotel room is to pick up all the bits and pieces – the folders, the leaflets, the folded bits of card, the chocolates they leave on the pillow – and hide them in the bottom drawer. I don’t know who all these wasteful excess is meant to impress. It certainly doesn’t impress me.

Very grand hotels rarely stop to think what customers actually want in a room. Clearly, you want hot water and good towels; you want a comfortable bed and good quality linen. But sometimes, the suite can be so big you’ll put something down and be unable to find it. That’s not convenient or luxurious. I’m constantly trying to reify what we mean by luxury, and tend to think it’s not the presence of lots of fuss so much as its absence.

The most expensive hotel room I’ve ever occupied was also one of the most hideous. That was in the New York Palace Hotel. I had a triplex suite there once for a few days, at $15,000 a night – luckily, I wasn’t paying. It had three floors, six bathrooms and a grand piano, and I lounged around there, in apathetic melancholy, longing to be in the Hotel de Provence in Cannes, which is uncomplicated and charming.

Charm, to me, is unmeasurable – something which happens by accident rather than by design. It’s not about power and prestige and fineness. I find it the most attractive commodity which either a person or an institution can possess.

I’ve always known exactly how to behave in hotels. When I was a child, my parents travelled around England a lot, and I often tagged along with them, using room service menus as bedtime reading. From a very early age I felt more comfortable in these environments than I did at home. I understood the language and the formalities; the restrictions and the opportunities.

Hotels combine to me a lot of very interesting things, as they’re a totally designed experience. They offer concepts of refuge, and a contrived sort of domesticity, but also a kind of emotional neutrality. They give you the opportunity to play a role, or equally, to be completely anonymous.

Then there’s always the ghost of the suggestion of romantic possibility – the stranger you see across the room; all those hilarious prospects of walking into the wrong room, or someone walking into your room. These things never happen, or at least, never to me, but they’re part of why we find hotels alluring.

The really great hotels are like microcosms of the cities they exist in. Las Casas de la Juderia in Seville, for example, is a fabulous warren of strange rooms, and patios and sprinkling fountains. It actually is Seville in miniature.

Conversely, I loathe the idea of design hotels. I’d rather sleep on the street. Design is the ordinary thing done extraordinarily well, whereas design hotels are usually extraordinary things done extraordinarily badly.

Without question, the worst place I’ve ever visited was the Murano in Paris, a so-called design hotel and probably the vilest in the world. It’s got a white vinyl studded banquette, and an artificial fire in the lobby. There’s a bath so punishingly uncomfortable that nobody will use it, a control panel so you can adjust the colour of the lighting, and a sex toy in the bathroom. It’s repellent.

And every other ‘design hotel’ I’ve seen is exactly that – just shrieking uncomfortable, embarrassing nonsense. The Royalton in New York, before Philippe Starck got to it, used to be a favourite hotel of mine. It had this fabulously faded Damon Runyon feel about it, a huge liveried flunky from the Deep South on the door, and a Norman Rockwell-style diner.

But then Starck moved in and ‘designed’ it to within an inch of its life, to the point at which you weren’t allowed to adjust the layout of the chairs in the lobby when you were sitting on them. I mean, somebody would move in from behind the check-in desk to say: “I’m sorry, you can’t move that chair sir – the designer wanted it to be there”. Awful.

Coco Chanel said that fashion is what goes out of fashion and goodness me, design hotels are out of fashion. Certainly if I’ve got anything to do with it, we’ve seen the end of this hideous, self-conscious faux-modernity; this baffling need to strike irrelevant poses. I have seen the future, and it’s small, individual and charming.

The things you enjoy in a hotel, or a restaurant, are things like generosity, personality; the opportunity to be cosseted or the opportunity to be ignored. And most of all you want the environment to be an honest expression of the spirit of the place. You can always detect quality, even if it’s impossible to define it.”

This interview appears in the Winter 2011/12 edition of Hotel Management International

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