The Original Boutique Hotels
Published: May 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
They may be stylish and steeped in attitude—<i>Is that an enormous polyurethane foot in my bathroom?</i>—but how are the original boutique hotels faring two decades on?<b>Christopher Petkanas</b> checks in
They adopted the exclusive, velvet-rope attitude of nightclubs, and in the process raised the bar for service, look, and vibe. They spawned (for better and worse) hundreds if not thousands of wannabes. They made the prospect of spending a night in a town not your own a little more interesting than it had ever been. Design-drivenhotels are part of the landscape now. Here's a look at somegold-standard pioneers, templates created in London, New York, and Paris all those years ago.
Blakes London ESTABLISHED 1981
"No two rooms alike" has become such a trope of the hotel business, you have to yawn. That's not being cynical. Too many places fail to deliver on their promise of uniqueness. Changing the color of the bathroom tile a half tone doesn't do it.
It wasn't always like that. Blakes, originally three handsome Victorian town houses in South Kensington, was conceived by Anouska Hempel as an answer to her theoretical question, "Where would I and my sophisticated, well-traveled friends want to stay in London if we weren't staying at the Ritz or the Savoy?"
The answer was a super-upmarket bed-and-breakfast celebrated for guest rooms that were as different from one another as Vivienne Westwood is from, say, Hardy Amies. With the mid-eighties addition of two more town houses and a mews, Blakes gently morphed into a full-tilt hotel with two spin-offs, Blakes Amsterdam and, in London, the Hempel (which it no longer manages). But the commitment to making sure every room in the flagship provides a different decorative joyride is undiminished.
Guests are invited to fill the shoes of Russian prince, Turkish sultan, maharani, monk, or mandarin. You choose your fantasy, and it's realized by Hempel.Her passions are stripes, canopy beds, and almost any fabric you can think of. Crunchy moirés, glimmering failles, and crackling douppioni silks are deployed by the bolt, not the yard. Blakes' extravagantly themed rooms have held up well: stripes aside, they haven't developed any lines. Like a Cecil Beaton set for a play by Noël Coward, their charms never wear thin.
Blakes is kept in a sparkling state of freshness; recently added stall showers have ratcheted up the functional quotient. Service is riddled with chinks, however. Reception did the unthinkable in sending a delivery boy with my dinner directly to my room. He was very sweet, but the whole time he was handing over my curry I was sure I was about to be murdered.
Hempel is also a dressmaker, a lady (Lady Weinberg), and a decorator (some would say visual merchandiser). Wearing all these hats gives her a certain presence on the London scene, which, in turn, has fattened Blakes' customer base. Though Hempel is one of several investors in the company that owns the hotel, she is omnipotent. No one screams at her for going overboard. Which is what a stay at Blakes is all about. 33 Roland Gardens; 44-207/370-6701; www.blakeshotels.com; doubles from $413.
THE LOOK Ab Fab
THE SCENE A-list fashion, music, Hollywood types
THE SECRET WEAPON Blakes' grapefruit soap
THE DIRTY SECRET A deep, contortion-creating front desk
BEST ROOM The Directors Double
THE VERDICT Unassailable
Morgans, New York ESTABLISHED 1984
Hotel as theater. While Ian Schrager may not have invented the concept, he is certainly its most famous purveyor. Think of the Hudson in New York. Or the Sanderson in London. Both use big-production values to pull in an enthusiastic cast of paying guests.
Yet when Schrager launched his career as a hotelier, it was with a property so discreet as to be almost self-effacing. Morgans slipped into New York with a subtle and minimalist look—engineered by Andrée Putman—that was revolutionary. The lobby was so sparsely furnished, the message couldn't have been clearer if a "No Lingering" sign had been posted. With their winged taps and stainless-steel sinks, bathrooms had the distinct feel of a hospital. Color was limited to cream, beige, and greige. What punch there was came from a quietly recurring checkerboard pattern.
It is Schrager's position that Putman's "unlook" is timeless, that there will always be a customer for her unsentimental, ungiving brand of chic. Indeed, when the designer "refreshed" the hotel in 1995, she says her goal was to give the impression that nothing had been altered, even if the club chairs were new.
"My whole idea from the beginning was to steer clear of tape-à-l'oeil luxe—you know, marble, gilt, and crystal," explains Putman, who went on to create Pershing Hall Hotel in Paris. "People like those things because it makes them feel they're at Versailles."
If the 154 giltless guest rooms Putman did for Morgans don't produce the goose bumps they once did, she can hardly be blamed. Elements of the hotel's style have been digested, regurgitated, and disseminated by everyone from Crate & Barrel to Pottery Barn to Waterworks. Been there, seen that. What no entrepreneur who aspires to a fashionable clientele has managed to copy is the hotel's success in Murray Hill, a no-man's-land of a neighborhood. Morgans is even on the radar of New Yorkers who have no need of a place to sleep, thanks to its restaurant, Asia de Cuba, and a wacky basement bar.
As Schrager would admit, Morgans is a complicated institution. It presents itself as a blank slate with low-to-no energy, one on which you are invited to write your own experience. Then, just when you are getting comfortable, it abruptly reveals a steely, almost sinister flip side. A stay at Morgans requires more than lying back and waiting for the magic to begin. You have to be up to it. 237 Madison Ave.; 800/334-3408 or 212/686-0300; www.ianschragerhotels.com; doubles from $375.
THE LOOK Dark, dispassionate
THE SCENE Rag-trade; low-profile
THE SECRET WEAPON Dim common areas (aiding anonymity)
THE DIRTY SECRET Dim halls (nightmare using key)
BEST ROOMS The "standards"
THE VERDICT Chugging along
Royalton, New York ESTABLISHED 1988
Despite an abiding preference for his own bed, Philippe Starck has designed the most influential hotels of the past two decades, all for the Ian Schrager group. The Royalton was the first design hotel to capture Manhattan's imagination wholesale. Even people whose exposure was limited to second-city Hiltons dreamed of casting their fate in the Royalton's lobby, conceived by Starck as a social stage with all the erotic possibilities of a cocktail lounge and the exclusiveness of a private club.
Fifteen years on, the blistering combination of plugged-in out-of-towners and faddish New Yorkers that made the Royalton's bars and 44 restaurant so exciting is history. Now almost everyone is a guest of the hotel. One of the ways you know this is that so many people are dressed in black and drinking caipirinhas. New Yorkers have moved on from black and caipirinhas.
Schrager prides himself on staying ahead of the curve. As at Morgans, Schrager has seen no reason to revisit the Royalton's prankish look, which was originally lauded as sexy, provocative, ironic. Indeed, staying at the hotel in those early, more design-naïve days was like having an elbow jabbed in your side from check-in to check-out. No one had imagined a closet door handle as the talon of a prehistoric beast (or was it a satyr's horn?). Or a trough urinal in gleaming metal with a waterfall flush. Wall-hung in multiples and filled with faux-innocent baby's breath, a vase would never be a vase again.
Reliving all this in 2003 has a not unpleasant museum-like quality, like a walk down memory lane. The 205 shipshape guest rooms adhere to a light nautical premise, with portholes in the bed alcoves serving as night tables, and glossy mahogany banquettes decked with white cushions. All in all, the look is tough, hard, and gray, without an ounce of pattern. Traditional notions of luxury don't enter into it, and neither, heaven knows, does compassion. Even though my bed was warm, I felt cold. By morning I thought I'd died of loneliness.
The one thing Schrager has rethought is service, perhaps because he tired of taking hits for hiring kids who look great but just cannot be trained to hold a door open. A waitress insisted the house pay for my drinks because she thought I had been kept waiting too long for my room. (I wasn't bothered.) A request for foam pillows was filled in the time it took to brush my teeth.
Schrager and Starck have come a long way since the Royalton—six hotels, to be exact. Who can forget the full-spectrum dials that enable guests at London's St. Martins Lane to wash their rooms in any color they fancy?Or the pool with underwater classical music at the Delano in Miami Beach?In a willful crossing of cultures, amoeba chairs, gold-leaf settees, and benches carved from tree trunks do their best to get along at New York's Hudson.
Not that you have to pay rack rate for a hit of Starck hotel style. The 10-foot-high flowerpots first seen at the Mondrian in Los Angeles have turned up outside an apartment building a couple of doors down from mine in Greenwich Village. There's no escaping him. 44 W. 44th St.; 800/635-9013 or 212/869-4400; www.ianschragerhotels.com; doubles from $350.
THE LOOK Vintage Starck
THE SCENE Out-of-the-loop thirtysomethings play catch-up
THE SECRET WEAPON Surprisingly good service
THE DIRTY SECRET Reservationists not mentioning promotions
BEST ROOMS With fireplaces
THE VERDICT Yesterday once more
Hôtel Montalembert, Paris ESTABLISHED 1990
The Hôtel Montalembert has become so much a part of the international design vocabulary, it's hard to remember a time when it didn't exist. And yet it's been only 13 years since it broke the mold of traditional Left Bank lodgings, a genre forever identified by beamed ceilings, sprigged wallpaper, and badly hung copies of Sisley riverscapes.
Exhibiting a swaggering, take-it-or-leave-it sense of aesthetic purpose, the Montalembert scuttled these motifs in favor of tonic, neo-Modernist simplicity. Smoke-tinted sycamore headboards, pierced with cutouts to accommodate reading lights, were in. Daintily buttoned slipper chairs were out. It was the shot heard round the world, one that continues to make the Montalembert desirable and modish, if not exactly thrilling.
It's not just the hospitality world the Montalembert rocked. With an unimpeachable St.-Germain location and a pleasing 56 rooms, the Montalembert has also had a powerful effect on residential design. Just ask Holly Hunt, maker of a line of best-selling furniture by the hotel's first designer, Christian Liaigre.
The onetime horse breeder owes the jump-starting of his second career to Grace Leo-Andrieu, the powerhouse whose company manages the Montalembert, and who stuck her neck out by tapping him to remake it. And, if not nearly as famous as Philippe Starck, Liaigre is these days nonetheless considered money in the bank by hoteliers, having gone on to design the Mercer Hotel in New York and Club Med Bora Bora.
But no hotel can stand still, Leo-Andrieu believes, not even one as iconic as the Montalembert. Last year it came off a "lifting" (as the French call cosmetic facial surgery) that is clearly not the work of the hotel's original creator, who (having become a certified star) had already begun publicly complaining years before about wayward elements creeping into the place without his approval. Recent changes were made by a team directed with a firm hand by Leo-Andrieu. Discreet pin-striped bedcovers replaced the bold awning-striped ones that caused such a stir when the hotel opened. Slender chrome bedside lamps gave way to a bronze model with an undulating base. Blackout curtains in mock grosgrain are now fronted with crinkled linen panels—a soft, romantic improvement. One of the hotel's great innovations was to offer contemporary rooms alongside others filled with Louis-Philippe furniture. The mix endures. The gimmick in the new restaurant is to have dishes in two sizes: "dégustation" and "gourmet."
Such is the mystique of the Montalembert that people with the means to stay in any Paris hotel continue to choose it. Their loyalty has something to do with the service, which is crisply professional. Hundreds of copycat properties from Melbourne to Milwaukee were inspired by the Montalembert, whose look isn't nearly as sharp and focused as it once was. But no one seems to mind. 3 Rue de Montalembert, Seventh Arr.; 800/323-7500 or 33-1/45-49-68-68; www.montalembert.com; doubles from $330.
THE LOOK Compromised Liaigre
THE SCENE Francophiles, shoppers
THE SECRET WEAPON Croissants from Gérard Mulot
THE DIRTY SECRET Rickety furniture
BEST ROOMS Top floor
THE VERDICT Future assured
(Not All of Which Involve Leonardo DiCaprio)
1980 Studio 54's Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell sentenced to prison for tax evasion. They serve a year, exploring design challenges of minimalist, confined, dimly lit spaces.
1981 The design-hotel saga begins: Anouska Hempel opens Blakes London. Traveling celebrities everywhere rejoice.
1981 Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants founded: first boutique-hotel chain. Mini-bars stocked with "intimacy kits" soon follow.
1984 In New York, Ian Schrager begins his new career as a hotelier, opening Morgans (minimalist, confined, dimly lit).
1985 Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier lunches at Blakes for the first time. Returns for the next 18 years.
1988 The Royalton cuts its Philippe Starck-designed ribbon in New York. Mind the sharp edges.
1990 Hotel goddess Grace Leo-Andrieu refurbishes the 1920's Hôtel Montalembert, Paris.
1991 Historic Marlin hotel in Miami Beach reopens as first Island Outpost property—Chris Blackwell's maiden hospitality venture.
1993 Design Hotels, a consortium of stylish properties around the world, founded to "provide modern travelers with an alternative to the optimized norm, bringing creativity, style, and individuality into the experience." Sadly, such rampant individuality soon makes everything start to look alike.
1993 The Hempel, Anouska Hempel's posh minimalist property in the not-so-posh Bayswater section of London, opens, drawing such revelers as Elton John and Valentino.
1993 Joie de Vivre Hospitality, a San Francisco-based boutique group, makes its design-hotel debut with the Nob Hill Lambourne.
1995 Is the design hotel over?Leonardo DiCaprio interviewed at Royalton by New York Times reporter.
1997 Yes, it's over: Duran Duran holds court at Blakes. For two months.
1998 Maxim sends reporters to hip New York spots—including the Royalton and Morgans bars—to see whether life is better as celebrities live it. (It is, though the Maxim guys still can't get the girls.)
1998 Leonardo DiCaprio and his posse allegedly brawl with posse-deficient ex-actor Roger Wilson at Asia de Cuba, the Morgans' restaurant. A $45 million lawsuit results; at issue, in part, is whether DiCaprio "had the hots for Elizabeth Berkley."
1998 Starwood opens first W hotel. Within five years, 16 more open in North America.
1999 A boutique-hotel moment: Elizabeth Hurley inhales oxygen from canister during interview with reporter in room 007 at Blakes London.
1999 Book series on hip hotels called, well, Hip Hotels is launched.
2000 Schrager's Mondrian (opened in 1996 in L.A.) settles $1 million discrimination suit brought by nine minority employees who didn't "fit in" with the stark-white "atmosphere."
2000 Interior designer Christian Liaigre in dispute with Grace Leo-Andrieu. Paris police arrive at Leo-Andrieu's Bel-Ami and remove lamps Liaigre says were copies of his designs.
2001 Under headline HEMPEL OF DOOM, London's Independent on Sunday claims Anouska Hempel "has been ousted from her temple of minimalism." Hempel sells the Hempel.
2001 Royalton's entrance given cameo in Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise.
2002 The Washington Post declares the end of the boutique hotel. Nevertheless, in 2002 and 2003, from San Diego to South Beach to Times Square, eight boutique hotels—apparently owned and operated by people who missed that article—open around the United States.