Newsletters  | Mobile

The Original Boutique Hotels

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 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.


Sign Up

Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition