Most aging pop divas will tell you that when it comes to visual packaging, deciding between change and maintenance is the most agonizing issue they face. How much of a makeover will fans tolerate?Will they become bored with the same old highlights and abandon you for the rival with the luxuriant weave?Diana Ross famously chooses maintenance—Big Hair and bustier frocks with lives of their own—a sensitive reading of her constituency's needs. Cher has ground her way through a crazy number of coifs, but the message sent back by her public is clear: Keep it long, straight, and black. It may never have occurred to you, but hotels whose success lies squarely in their designer looks—such as Twin Farms in Vermont, the Costes in Paris, and the Mercer in New York—have a lot more in common with certain lady singers than is generally allowed. To evolve or not to evolve?
Few people ever make the connection between the loyalty patterns of hotel guests and Top 40 music enthusiasts, but the link is there too. From my own experience, I can tell you that something as seemingly small as a change in the old-fashioned square satin eiderdown at a favorite auberge in Brittany, or in the woven-straw roller shades at an inn I have been going to for years in Andalusia, can be enough to make me never go back. Sounds irrational, but is it?Hoteliers spend their lives trying to figure out just which decorative elements make their properties tick. Redo the entire lobby, and there's no drop-off. Switch the bedding, and you've lost a devoted customer. It's unguessable.
With the recent opening at Twin Farms of ﬁve new guest rooms—rooms that represent a chancy stylistic turnaround for the hotel—questions like these are swirling around the place like autumn leaves, making for the most uncertain, nail-biting time in its 12-year history. By voting for maintenance (the approach to the original Jed Johnsondesigned spaces is as close to curatorial as you'll ﬁnd outside a house museum) and change (the new Thad Hayes accommodations), Twin Farms is betting that it can hold on to its fan base while creating a new one.
Centered on a 1795 farmhouse, the hotel claims what must be the 300 prettiest acres in New England, 10 miles from what even the proud people of Maine and Massachusetts agree is the prettiest town in New England, Woodstock. Twin Farms has wildflower meadows, apple orchards, pine forests, a lake, a private ski run—the works. Someone once called it "summer camp for grown-ups," but forgot the crucial modifier rich. When the hotel buys a mailing list, everyone on it has a net worth of more than $5 million.
Hayes's rooms are in two strutting new buildings, the Aviary and the Farmhouse at Copper Hill, by Bill Gates's architect Peter Bohlin. In the context of Johnson's legacy, they have a lot to live up to. Raised in a small farming town in Minnesota, Johnson arrived in Manhattan in 1968, at age 20, with no money, no formal training, and an as-yet-unawakened affinity for the Arts and Crafts style. The rest sounds apocryphal, but it really did happen. While working for Western Union, Johnson delivered a telegram to Andy Warhol's Factory. This led to his being hired to sweep the floors, which led to his editing the film Women in Revolt and directing Bad, which led to his and Warhol's falling in love, which led to his doing Warhol's fabled town house on East 66th Street, which led to Johnson becoming one of the most important and original decorators of the past half-century, with clients from Mick Jagger and Barbra Streisand to Pierre Bergé and the Ronald Lauders.
"Jed's rooms never seem weighed down by a sense of importance, or by the smell of money, both of which can make a place seem cold and dead," Sandra Brant observes in the new monograph Jed Johnson: Opulent Restraint (Rizzoli). Brant helped finance Warhol's magazine Interview and employed Johnson on upwards of 10 projects. "If there was anything that marked his designs," critic Paul Goldberger writes in another of the book's essays, "it was a forthright determination to make space resonate, to make it glow with that peculiar form of perfection that comes when objects of great quality are well placed in carefully wrought surroundings."
With Johnson—unlike other residential designers who accept the occasional commercial commission—there was no question of shifting down, which is a nice way of saying dumbing down, for Twin Farms. Treehouse cottage has delicate white-birch fretwork between chunky ceiling beams of the same wood, chinoiserie toile pelmets whose sawtooth points end in tiny bells, and hand-carved ravens atop the posts of a barley-twist bed. Meadow cottage, a Maghrebian daydream of mosaic tiles, layered kilims, voluptuous banquettes, and trefoil window screens, makes the point that the only thing chicer than a tented ceiling is a trompe l'oeil one, realized in billowing plaster and painted stripes.
Johnson died on TWA Flight 800, which exploded over the Atlantic off Long Island in 1996. Because the company that carries his name is not only still in business but also retains some of the same people who initially collaborated on Twin Farms, many assumed the hotel would simply return to the firm when it decided to increase its inventory. The bet-hedging solution the property ultimately came up with is more nuanced, more creative, though not one that would necessarily work for songbirds who will soon be eligible for senior bus fare.
"We view what Jed did as art—it would be foolish to touch it," says Thurston Twigg-Smith, one of the hotel's shareholders. "Guests would notice, and they wouldn't be happy. Jed's rooms cannot be improved." The hotel takes its responsibility as guardian so seriously that it goes to the trouble, and expense, of using Johnson's company—now run by his brother Jay—for most of the upkeep. The Delano in Miami and Wheatleigh in Massachusetts take a similar custodial approach.
"We purchased ten percent additional fabric when we designed Wheatleigh in 2001 so there'd be stock for re-covering," says Calvin Tsao of Tsao & McKown. "We go up once a season and see what needs repair. And because we know how much housekeepers love to push furniture against the walls and pile amenities in a corner of the vanity, there's a room-by-room manual with photographs that shows precisely where everything goes. There's even a picture of how not to overﬁll the cotton-swab bowls."
The Delano has no relationship with its visionary, Philippe Starck, but a similar document, the hotel's "look book," does an excellent job of cementing the place in a 1995 time warp. "The legendary lobby sofa with eight-foot-high sides and back gets totally rebuilt every six months," says general manager Mark Tamis, "but it's the same sofa that has always been there and will always be there."
Buzz Kelly, who, as part of the Johnson team, has worked on Twin Farms since the drawing-board stage, says the property looks "startlingly, one hundred percent" as it did when it opened. "Whenever we order new anything, it's identical to the originals," Kelly notes. "We're currently replacing the rag rugs in the Washington Room and the matchstick blinds in the bathrooms. The owners never ask, say, for contract-grade rub-tested fabrics that would wear better, only for exactly what was there before."
The choice of Hayes for the hotel's expansion was not an obvious one, not if you assumed Twin Farms would be going for continuity and someone with Johnson's star power. Hayes is Mr. Clean, the go-to man for rooms that pop, a traditionalist who takes the stuffing out of traditional decorating. He is well respected and has a solid business, but he does not inhabit the pantheon Johnson does. Which is another way of saying that while Hayes certainly makes the world more beautiful, he is probably not going to change it.
"For better or worse," Hayes says, "what I've done at Twin Farms is less thematic. It's subtler, more edited, and more minimal, with the economy and clarity of a haiku." Lost in the woods, the duplex Aviary is a soaring freestanding shaft of glass and peeled white-cedar logs with what is for Twin Farms a tiny footprint—just over 600 square feet. It has dirty celebrity weekend written all over it. Mid-20th-century Modernism is a lot less thrilling now that the Targets of the world have thrown their grubby hats into the ring, but Hayes does manage to wring some excitement from it, mostly by courageously engaging with the color orange. The Aviary has orange Douglas-fir paneling, an orange shag rug, a leggy walnut coffee table with an orange enamel top, orange Ultrasuede upholstery, and a bed with an orange buttoned-leather headboard and footboard. Hayes says he was thinking of James Bond when he conceived the hideaway, but a James Bond who wears Birkenstocks and eats granola.
In the Farmhouse, a common space with library chairs in perforated apple-green leather with nail-head trim divides two pairs of stacked guest rooms. One pair has a tailored, rather manly barn subtext, with exposed framing, square-armed sofas, metal corncob table lamps, and fieldstone fireplaces. The other, an amused riff on the classic all-American farm dwelling, has skip-troweled plaster walls, beadboard wainscoting washed with milk paint, wing-backed sofas in a Colefax & Fowler chintz, red-brick fireplaces, vintage hat forms, and a collection of old sugar, lard, and tobacco tins. Each room has a screened porch. "If you're looking at the Web site," Hayes says, "you know instantly which side of the Farmhouse—butch or girly—is for you."
Not all hotels that trade heavily on appearances have shown Twin Farms' bravery—or disloyalty, if you prefer—in branching out. When the Costes—known for its neo-Rothschild glamour—added a bar in March, the hotel went straight back to Jacques Garcia, who originally designed the property in 1995. Sixty percent of the lobby seating and fixtures have changed since the Mercer launched in 1997, but the models that replaced them are by the hotel's auteur, the man who must answer for the global glut of wenge-wood furniture, Christian Liaigre.
Speaking of maintenance, a younger generation of diva warbler is discovering just how devouring it can be. If Janet Jackson spent more time in the recording studio and less time honing her six-pack, she might still have a career. Mariah Carey saved herself a lot of hours at the gym this year by having her abs stenciled on—and swanned away with the number-one song of the summer. Somewhere in that there's a lesson for hotels.
TWIN FARMS, Barnard, Vt.; 800/894-6327;www.twinfarms.com; Aviary from $1,850, double, Farmhouse from $1,650. Rates include three meals, wine, and spirits.
CHRISTOPHER PETKANASis the special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.