At the dazzlingly futuristic Yas Hotel, in Abu Dhabi, the curvilinear buildings are draped with a giant, LED-lit glass veil and straddle a Formula One racetrack. The structure resembles a multicolored UFO waiting to take off. For the inside, the building’s architects, the New York firm Asymptote, had similarly forward-looking ideas: a GPS locator in each room key would open the door without any physical contact—your room would know you were coming. One of the interior walls was envisioned to be a glass surface where “you waved your hand and a perfectly high-resolution TV image would appear,” says Asymptote partner Hani Rashid.
The super-high-tech hotel room seems to have arrived back in 2005, when Zaha Hadid’s smooth, womblike interiors were used on a single floor of the Hotel Silken Puerta América, an architectural theme park of a building in Madrid. Then, in 2008, the Future Hotel Showcase Room cooked up by the Laboratory for Visionary Architecture (LAVA) of Stuttgart, Germany, appeared, taking its cues from Hadid. The LAVA project resembles the inside of a Hollywood spaceship, with curved white walls, sculpted furniture, and no right angles. The only soft surface in the room is a comforter covering a bed set on a platform that supposedly rocks its occupants to sleep. The room has one very appealing technical innovation, anti-jet-lag lighting, and one less promising gadget, a robot bartender. And just last year, W Hotels showed its Extreme Wow Suite of the Future, a “full sensory experience” by Parisian designer Patrick Jouin, at an exhibition in São Paulo, Brazil. It’s yet another Hadid-style womb, anticipating a future in which furniture as we know it will be extinct, the dominant color will be white, and curvy walls will double as TV screens. The Jouin suite is very swank, but not especially revelatory. In Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, Asymptote’s room designs for the Yas were deemed too expensive and too disquieting, and were left on the drawing table. All this raises a question: What if the future doesn’t look like this anymore?
Ask Eric Chiarelli, a senior designer at Hirsch Bedner Associates, the international hospitality design firm, and he’ll reel off a long list of technologies that should be in hotel rooms someday. For instance, he’s excited about “quantum dots,” an outgrowth of nanotechnology, which could be printed on a hotel room’s walls and light the room, continually changing color, intensity, and imagery. His clients, however, are not ready to implement—or pay for—something so very cutting-edge. Chiarelli acknowledges that the way the future really happens is through “smart evolution,” a less jolting form of technologically driven change. Hello, wall-mounted flat-screen TV, good-bye, TV-concealing armoire.
Aside from the fact that hotel-room design tends to progress at an evolutionary pace rather than a revolutionary one, our whole notion of what the future is about seems to be undergoing a profound transition. In the hotel industry, what people talk about when they talk about the future is not so much technology as human values. Words like home, customized, personal, and authenticity come up a lot. “Those are the buzzwords in the industry right now,” says Robin Standefer, who, together with her husband and business partner, Stephen Alesch, runs the New York–based architecture and interior design firm Roman & Williams. The firm is responsible for the interiors of two recently opened New York hotels: the Standard and the Ace. They couldn’t be more different. The Standard, as Standefer puts it, takes the “lack-of-memory escapist approach,” whereas the Ace is crammed with memories, both real and imaginary. And it’s the memory-laden look that Roman & Williams came up with for the Ace that may be the most powerful harbinger of the near future. The rooms resemble loft apartments stocked with retro-chic Smeg refrigerators, working turntables, and vinyl LP’s.