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Hotel Bathrooms: Bathing Beauty

Patrick Cariou

Photo: Patrick Cariou

Let's begin with a confession: I swipe the soaps. Not all the soaps and not in every hotel. Just the ones at the Bristol in Paris. I take several from the morning cleanup and stash them in my suitcase. At turndown, more miraculously appear; I grab those too. What the housekeeper thinks of this fanatical cache can easily be imagined. She's probably waiting for me to walk off with the towels.

Am I nuts for presuming that everybody purloins "product"?The celebrity makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin once so lavishly consumed the Bulgari Green Tea Skin Care Collection provided at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles that, as he said, "I'm sure housekeeping thought I was drinking it." So what if he had been?Isn't product there to be used?Hoarding toiletries, however, as though one were the spawn of Howard Hughes or some sort of five-star hotel refugee, is another story. In my case, it is a habit particular to a single hotel.

The soaps at the Bristol come from Hermès's Eau d'Orange Verte line; each lilliputian bar is contained in a bottle-green plastic box with a neatly fitted lid. It is the perfect travel fetish object: looks good, barely registers as a scent (an important point for those of us determined to resist the plague of unwanted perfume), and generally classes up the Dopp kit. I am amassing this hoard, I persuade myself, as ammunition against the more, uh, pedestrian lodgings typical of my travels. It will indisputably be useful in, say, India, where hotel soaps called Foamy or Perk tend to smell like mothproofing disks, or else in American motels of the parking-lot-pool variety, where the mingy bathroom wafers invariably have a medicinal odor and come sheathed in paper that can't be removed without shreds of it sticking to your hands.

While there are many reasons to call the Bristol memorable, in an odd way it is the soap that earns my loyalty. It establishes something about the tone of the place, as definitively as the opulent flowers in the lobby and the assorted gilt Louis XV doodads. It subtly directs one's attention to how other details, such as those in the bathroom—and hence one's quarters in general—are deployed. The room has not only immense, thick bath sheets but also a chrome towel warmer, a lighted magnifying mirror, and a terry cloth—slipcovered scale. There is a stool on which to sit when clipping one's . . . well, you don't want to know. The hideous but seemingly obligatory hair dryer is discreetly tucked in a drawer, along with a sewing kit, cotton balls, and other sundries. These are small things, yes. But minutiae take on outsized importance in the tiny cosmos of a hotel room, a fact the industry has increasingly come to recognize.

While the "statement lobby"—now as dated as the cage elevator—recedes into memory, bathrooms have become what one architect calls ground zero of hotel design. To use fashion parlance, the bathroom is the new lobby.

"I don't think you can possibly overstate their importance," says André Balazs, the Conrad Hilton of hip hotels (Balazs is the proprietor of, among others, the Christian Liaigre—designed Mercer in New York and the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, perennial home of Starlets and the Men Who Love Them). The fascination with bathrooms in hotels seems to parallel the fixation on those in American homes; little more than a century after plumbing moved indoors, Americans have begun to entertain fantasies about their bathing rituals that rival the giddy excesses of Pompeii. In a study by the National Association of Home Builders, 2,000 householders surveyed cited the bath as the second room on their remodeling wish list, after the kitchen. "Americans are having a love affair with the bathroom," the organization's director, Gopal Ahluwalia, told the New York Times.

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