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Hotel Bathrooms: Bathing Beauty

Patrick Cariou

Photo: Patrick Cariou

Why not?Fewer people at the upper levels of hotel lodgings are going away exclusively on business. Or, rather, the lines between business and pleasure are less clearly drawn. Ask Uncle Sam. Or else ask Anthony Lee, the house manager of the seductively archaic Connaught Hotel in London (currently undergoing a discreet, and vaguely schizophrenic, rehabilitation: jackets are still required in the dining room, but there's a new high-tech fitness club). Conducting a guest on a tour of the hotel recently, Lee noted, "A large percentage of our clientele is high-end leisure. At their level, you're playing a game of golf and also closing a hundred-million-dollar deal." In a kind of innkeepers' version of trickle-down economics, expectations of the high-end leisure traveler are thought to exert a subtle influence on the trade as a whole.

Rather than being considered pods for sanitation and evacuation, hotel bathrooms, Balazs says, are now "theaters of operations." There's a "generational shift," he maintains, particular to the exacting and well-maintained traveler, whose portable battery of pills, mousses, sprays, perfumes, paints, and potions has traditionally received short shrift when it comes to an adequate staging ground. "The design briefs have tended to be pretty generic," Calvin Tsao tells me. "One sink or two?A bidet?The issues you're considering are how to deploy horizontal surface."

At the Tribeca Grand Hotel in Manhattan, the space allotted Tsao & McKown was a scant 54 square feet. "They're somewhat small," Tsao remarks tactfully of spaces that call to mind the sardine-can lavatories on airplanes, minus the diaper-changing shelf and the scary vacuum flush that threatens to pull the hair off your head. "So we created a panel next to the mirror for tissues, a makeup light, a small TV, and the outlets, and then we tried to organize things so that you know it's all there." Tsao & McKown made the bathrooms appear larger by unifying the materials, in this case "stainless-steel counters with an integral sink." The design choice was inspired not so much because stainless is the postmodern Formica, but because "it's a material you can cut into" to create efficient slots—think TV-dinner trays—with dedicated niches for hair dryers, Dopp kits, and soap.

At his newest hotel, the Standard near the Staples Center in Los Angeles, André Balazs "made a big commitment of space" for bathrooms. Whereas on most hotel projects "fifteen percent of the room is bath," at the Standard some baths take up nearly half the room. Certain suite bathrooms have even been given the gamma ray treatment: designed for basketball players who are in town to play the Lakers, they measure a whopping 270 square feet and have a sideshow quality, everything having been rendered at Shaq scale.

HOTEL GUESTS, SAYS LOUIS KIEVIT, sales director for the luxury Park Hyatt Chicago, "deserve to be wowed when they walk into the bathroom." To that end, the hotel provides a level of opulence so minutely detailed it comes close to inflaming the sensibilities of one's inner Puritan. Certainly, as Boswell observed, there is "nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn." But have we carried things too far when we install wall-mounted flat-screen televisions, individually wrapped wooden bath brushes, twin showerheads, double sinks, dual vanities, and an oversize soaking tub big enough for two? One "doesn't want for anything in these rooms," Kievit says. In reality, one doesn't want for things one hadn't thought of wanting in the first place. The Sony Wega television in the bedroom at the Park Hyatt is an example: chosen specifically for its screen, which can be viewed distortion-free from the tub, it permits guests to "lie back, light a candle, and watch their movie of choice without the picture being warped," Kievit explains. And should pairs-bathing (the next Olympic sport) fail to excite them, guests can flip open the tubside shutters and drink in the trillion-dollar city view.

The rest of us travelers have more prosaic concerns, and we can only hope that the hotel industry is taking note. When hotelier Conrad Hilton (dying words: "Always put the shower curtain inside the tub") described an ideal hotel room of the future, his wish list included television, portable libraries, sunlamps, portable beauty parlors, small freezers for ice cubes in each room, automatic telephones that record all calls, improved air-conditioning and ventilation, and other innovations. Many of his prophecies are now standard-issue, but the most desirable components of the ideal hotel room of the future are no different from that of the past: space, sanitation, and service.

Common to the memories I hold of all the hotel rooms I've stayed in—and these range from a stupendous suite at the Taj Exotica in Goa to a serenely cloistered room at the echt-sixties Camino Real in Mexico City to a hotel in Vicenza where the hallway bathroom could be made secure only by propping a hat rack against the door—is an uncanny sense of how well the bathrooms were laid out and maintained. Recently in Paris I found myself unaccountably upgraded to a suite at a celebrated luxury hotel, with views to the Tuileries and the Eiffel Tower.

In the bedroom, a forest of fake Louis XV furniture was arrayed with taste. A fruit basket rested on the bureau, along with orchids in moss from Christian Tortu. The bathroom, of course, was absurdly marmoreal and immense. Even before unpacking I decided that the toiletries seemed so luxurious that I'd break with spartan habit and draw myself a bath.

And that was when I saw it, stubbornly clinging to the enamel. Say what you will about fancy fittings, flattering lighting, and luxurious product; the memory I'll hold forever is of an errant, alien pubic hair stuck to the bathtub wall.

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