"Luxury is back," says publicist Leslie Lefkowitz of the Four Seasons in Manhattan, showing me around the two already legendary I. M. Peidesigned supersuites that opened last year. Stylistically, the suites are as tasteful as my spread at the InterContinental was showy. Chocolate-upholstered couches beckon you to spark up the gas fireplace and get lost in a first edition of some late-period Dickens. When eyestrain sets in, you can go tinkle a little Chopin on the baby grand or rest your head against the woven leather paneling of the walls. Or simply stare out at New York through the enormous bay window. On a clear day, of which this happens to be a spectacular example, you can even see the Statue of Liberty, glinting tinily away to the south between the torsos of the skyscrapers.
But the low-key residential feel of the Pei suites is somewhat deceptive. In the company of a guide as well informed as Lefkowitz, every cozy, comfortable detail suddenly morphs into a unique and superluxe selling point. Those aren't just couches, apparently. They're couches by Peter Marino, who did all the interior design, and who famously doesn't design for hotels. What appears to be a spacious but merely functional bathroom is apparently a one-off celebration of special "ginger-onyx" marble, the seams and striations of which have been painstakingly lined up to provide continuity around corners and throughout alcoves. Indeed, Lefkowitz informs me, every single scrap of fabric and furnishing is "one of a kind," available neither in stores nor in any other Four Seasons room.
One can't help but feel that to the vast majority of potential occupants, this is—almost literally—gilding the lily. With the glaring exception of Martha Stewart, and just possibly that Swedish guy who owns IKEA, it's hard to see who could have learned enough about interior design to appreciate the detailing of the suite and still have had enough time left over to amass the kind of fortune that lets you spend $15,000 on a room for the night.
Which is, come to think of it, an extremely naïve observation. As well as housing the handful of 10-figure oligarchs and paradigm-shifters whose plaything this world of ours has become, an obvious second function of the supersuite is to impress the stuffing out of lowly journalists with holes in their T-shirts and checking-account balances in the very high two figures. In fact, if anything, supersuites function better as promotional showcases than they do as actual living spaces. By day three at the InterContinental I was starting to wish that the television at the foot of my bed didn't insist on gliding silently from its invisible hiding place whenever I wanted to watch it, but rather just stayed out in the open, immobile, somewhere I could—you know—look at it. Would I feel differently if I were a billionaire?Yes, I think I'd find it even more annoying.
But there is, I discovered, a hard-to-define pleasure to staying somewhere unique, and ultimately this may be what the supersuite phenomenon is really about, from Lefkowitz with her one-off sheets to my butlers Pang and Tatsuo, who took pains to explain that not only did I have the best possible view of Hong Kong, but also that "no one else has this view." Plasma TV's and en-suite gymnasia are all very nice, but on this rapidly standardizing, increasingly globalized globe, it may be that the most valuable commodity has suddenly become something that most of our ancestors, moneyed or otherwise, took for granted: the simple feeling of being different. It may be hard to put a price on such an ineffable sensation as that, but as the reception desks of the world's best hotels will be only too happy to tell you, it's not impossible.
Bruno Maddox is a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure.