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Are Cutting-Edge Hotels Becoming Dull?

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.

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