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).
WITH SO MANY GLADIATORS, COULD THE ARENA be getting too crowded?Are we entering an era of cookie-cutter cutting edge?Interior designer Kit Kemp brought British Country House style to London two decades ago with her Dorset Square and Pelham hotels; more recently, she pushed the British contemporary design envelope with her whimsical Covent Garden and Charlotte Street. Kemp observes that a lot of new hotels have a "shop-fitted" look. "Success breeds impersonators," she says. "So many feel as if they've been designed for the masses by some large firm that's churning them out."
Ultimately, surprise is one of the most important elements. India Mahdavi made waves in Miami Beach recently at the unpretentious Townhouse, installing a pool-less pool patio and gymless gym (she put exercise machines at the ends of the corridors on each floor). Here in Maastricht, La Bergère not only lets guests decorate their own digs, but it takes the ladies' room into the new millennium with urinals designed for women. At Hamburg's just-opened Side hotel, Milanese designer Matteo Thun's "super-sassi" (giant pebble) sofas, chairs, and tables add drama to his otherwise Spartan interiors and have caused a stir in the design world as furniture's hottest shapes since Arne Jacobsen's Swan and Egg chairs of the late fifties. Avant-garde American artist Robert Wilson has fitted a spectacular 75-foot-high space with long skinny tubes of constantly changing light. Farther north, Stockholm's new Birger Jarl hotel updates the executive-floor idea with a "design floor," where every room has been done by an important Swedish decorator or architect. And Stockholm's brand-new Nordic is actually two hotels in separate buildings, giving guests a choice of "two temperaments"—one warm, woody, vaguely nautical; the other cool, white, mainly minimal.
Are we getting carried away?"When you push something too far, you don't know if it's decoration or installation—and you forget you're in a hotel," says Mahdavi. "The danger of too much design is that it can be too aggressive." Schrager, master of the wow effect, agrees. "Too many good ideas become one bad idea," he says.
A case in point is the saga of Into the Hotel, a futuristic ski lodge that opened last year in Zermatt. The creation of visionary local artist and self-taught architect Heinz Julen, Into the Hotel had a disco grotto with a glass dance floor, a hydraulically controlled bar that could serve four different levels of the hotel, and rooms with bed and sofa on a turntable to give guests 360-degree control of their Alpine views. The ultimate flight of fancy was the whirlpool in the Presidential Suite, where, at the touch of a button, the roof flipped open and the hot tub rose magically into the sky like something out of a James Bond film. Alas, it all came to an end after pressure from conservative locals, squabbles among partners, and questions about the safety and legality of the innovations. After three months, the hotel was demolished.
Still, despite excesses, misses, and numerous instances of bad taste, the design hotel isn't going away. But where is it headed?How will it remain distinctive?How often can you reinvent the wheel?According to Schrager, "I have two choices. Either I can refine what we do—with more emphasis on great service. Or I can continue to pull rabbits out of a hat and blow everyone away. I want to do both."
Fasten your seat belts. It could be an exciting ride.
Pershing Hall—Decorator Andrée Putman is turning an old American Legion building off the Champs-Élysées in Paris into a chic 26-room town-house hotel. Opening this fall.
Hotel Miró—At last, Bilbao, Spain, gets a hip hotel to match its Guggenheim Museum. The 50-room stunner—the work of Spanish star designer Antonio Miró—bows in early 2002.
Astor Place—On the edge of New York City's East Village, Ian Schrager's first hotel built from the ground up has Frank Gehry and Philippe Starck (replacing the original high-powered team of architects Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron) doing a 21st-century take on the YMCA dormitory-style hotel. Opening in 2003.
La Bergère 40 Stationsstraat, Maastricht, Netherlands; 800/337-4685 or 31-43/ 328-2525; doubles from $114.
Misani Via Maistra, St. Moritz, Switzerland; 800/337-4685 or 41-81/833-3314; doubles from $84.
St. Martins Lane 45 St. Martin's Lane, London; 44-207/300-5500; doubles from $386.
Morgans 237 Madison Ave., New York; 800/334-3408 or 212/686-0300; doubles from $395.
Royalton 44 W. 44th St., New York; 800/ 635-9013 or 212/869-4400; doubles from $325.
Paramount 235 W. 46th St., New York; 800/225-7474 or 212/764-5500; doubles from $285.
Trafalgar 2 Spring Gardens, London; 800/445-8667 or 44-207/870-2900; doubles from $337.
Dorset Square 39-40 Dorset Square, London; 800/553-6674 or 44-207/723-7874; doubles from $196.
Pelham 15 Cromwell Place, London; 800/ 337-4685 or 44-207/589-8288; doubles from $253.
Covent Garden 10 Monmouth St., London; 800/337-4685 or 44-207/806-1000; doubles from $309.
Charlotte Street 15-17 Charlotte St., London; 800/337-4685 or 44-207/806-2000; doubles from $274.
Townhouse 150 20th St., Miami Beach; 877/534-3800 or 305/534-3800; doubles from $125.
Side 49 Drehbahn, Hamburg; 800/337-4685 or 49-40/309-990; doubles from $173.
Birger Jarl 8 Tulegatan, Stockholm; 800/ 223-5652 or 46-8/674-1800; doubles from $162.
Nordic 1 Vasaplan, Stockholm; 800/ 337-4685 or 46-8/5056-3000; doubles from $222.