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The Original Boutique Hotels

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.

MORGANS
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.

ROYALTON
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.

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