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For the Love of Hotel Design

This collision of the mundane and the fantastical is of course at the center of the hotel experience. What "New Hotels for Global Nomads" explores, often in eyebrow-raising detail, are the ways in which the hotel reflects not only how we travel but how we live. One section is devoted to fantasy, actual and virtual. In Japan, where space and privacy are hard to come by, "love hotels" provide practical solutions to trysting dilemmas, in rooms that seem earmarked for some adult-motel theme park. Guests are ingeniously screened from one another and from the staff; as they enter, they can select a room from a menu of backlit options. Meet you in: S&M, Gone with the Wind, Vegas, Niagara Falls, etc.

The hotel's promise of anonymity and louche pursuits has been mined by no one so well as by André Balazs, who established both of his L.A. Standard hotels in neighborhoods seemingly impervious to upscale trend-making. Not to worry: the seedy environs only served to enhance the hotels' cachet, providing an instant mise-en-scène for a clientele of younger travelers hungry for high-style concepts in previously derelict, "edgy" areas. In fact, these hotels look a lot like the industrial loft spaces coveted by these selfsame globe-trotting urbanites.

The degree to which the hotel shapes our landscape hasn't escaped the notice of the show's curators. We are treated not just to the predictable eco-lodges that copy local architecture down to the thatched roofs and mud-brick walls, but to Andreas Gursky's 46-by-59-foot Cibachrome of a generic high-rise hotel in Taipei; Swiss architect Peter Zumthor's take on the Swiss spa, a minimalist structure of thinly cut local stone that slides seamlessly into its Alpine backdrop; and Tom Sachs's Compact Full-Feature Hotel Room, which, like Louis Vuitton's own 1879 camp bed that folded into a trunk, makes the most of a small space.

If artists and architects have spent a lot of time imagining and re-imagining the hotel, so, it turns out, have the rest of us. Hotels have come to enjoy such a privileged place in the delirious realm of personal and social fantasy that the line between home and hotel can seem hopelessly blurred. The all-white room has found its way into more than one Manhattan loft and suburban McMansion. Hotel towels, sheets, and cutlery are sold in housewares stores as if the hotel insignia automatically made them worth having. So what is the hotel to do?This is perhaps the most interesting question raised by the show. As the luxury hotel is copied not just by its poorer cousins but by decorators and architects, it finds it needs to ceaselessly reinvent itself. So far, we continue to be seduced.

David Rimanelli is a New York-based art critic and curator.

"New Hotels for Global Nomads" is sponsored in part by Travel + Leisure, and runs October 29-March 2 at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 2 East 91st Street, New York; 212/849-8400.

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