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Are Cutting-Edge Hotels Becoming Dull?

I've just checked into La Bergère, a cool new hotel in Maastricht. My room is wonderfully minimal—I designed it that way. Yes, designed. When making my reservation, I was asked what furniture I'd like in addition to a bed and armchair. As I was only staying one night, I decided against the glass-topped desk and the wardrobe on wheels. I also had a say in the art—and opted for a lithograph of a cityscape rather than a still life or a nude. On arrival, I pick out a kilim for the bare blond floor.

"Would you like anything more?" asks the desk clerk who escorts me to my room.

"Actually, less," I tell him, nodding at the chair, an odd asymmetrical design with a built-in side table. "Lose it."

Guests at the new Misani hotel in St. Moritz also get to play decorator when booking a room. After first deciding on a theme—outback rustic?alpine cool?casbah classic?—they then select carpets, bedspreads, and window treatments. And at St. Martins Lane in London, while you can't mess with Philippe Starck's standard-issue white furniture, you can control the color and the mood of your bedroom lighting with a special dimmer switch.

Is all this interactivity just a fad, or is it the next wave in the rise of the design-driven hotel?The revolution began in the mid 1980's, when Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell enlisted French interior designer Andrée Putman to turn a dumpy Manhattan hotel called Morgans into the city's hippest hostelry. The mega-success of Schrager's next two New York projects, the Starck-designed Royalton and Paramount hotels, proved the existence of a vast underserved market of travelers who were hungry not just for modern design but also for the happening scene that Schrager built into the package.

Surprisingly, the hotel industry as a whole was slow to follow Schrager's lead. Peter Schweitzer, president of Design Hotels, a marketing and reservations agency for style-conscious properties, says he had a hard time finding a dozen hotels for his company's 1995 launch. But today, Schweitzer can count 104 hotels in his ever-growing stable. "Skeptics are always telling me that the public is going to get tired—that this kind of hotel will go away," says Schweitzer. "Will we return to some 1960's formula?At the end of the day, the appeal is not about in-your-face décor, but about being able to find like-minded people and environments that suit you."

Even big corporations are getting in on the action. Two years ago, Starwood—the conglomerate that owns Sheraton, Westin, and the St. Regis Luxury Collection—launched W. This "style" line combines high-profile talents—restaurateurs Drew Nieporent and Todd English, architect David Rockwell, nightlife maven Rande Gerber—to please the right audience. In July, Hilton entered the arena with its Trafalgar hotel in London. Billed as Hilton's first "lifestyle" property, the 129-room hotel borrows liberally from the Schrager formula: minimalist interiors, camera-ready staff, and an ultra-hot bar serving bourbon (London's next big drink).

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