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Top Designers Restyle the Motel

You may have stayed at some of the world's grandest hotels, but—admit it—there's a thrill to the prospect of a night in a motel. Such hankering after down-home roadside lodging is peculiar to Americans who grew up on Kerouac, Steinbeck, and Nabokov. Ours is a romantic dream about the transcontinental road trip and the seduction of the open highway. But if pressed, even we romantics must admit that many of today's motels have become just too funky.

On the one hand: convenience, comfort, and anonymity. On the other: seediness and sheer bad taste. Isn't it odd that, in a nation dedicated to the future, the motel languishes in a time warp, its décor and layout woefully at cross-purposes with a high-speed culture?

Change, however, is in the air. Travel + Leisure asked some of America's top designers and architects to give the motel a makeover. If they have their way, one day nobody will have to apologize for staying in a motel. Soon, the motel may be altogether unrecognizable—so comfortable, clean, and distinctive it will be worth a detour, maybe even an extra night on the road.

Whoa, shout detractors, don't you get it?The motel is an artifact—of little or no significance for travelers in America's 21st century. Bill Marriott Jr., chairman and CEO of Marriott International, contends, "No one uses the word motel anymore. People don't enjoy pulling up to one. They hate the noise of a room next to a parking lot, and they're troubled by the loss of security when their door opens to the outside."

The rest of us, however, may not be so perfunctory. Many enjoy the confidentiality of motels; others are drawn to them as icons of the nomadic life. Their neon signs promise that in our booming land at least one room is still "vacant." We like those architecturally indifferent structures that stand up to prairie winds. The sleep-sweet smell of the front office, where the owner rises from the TV's cold fire to exchange a hunk of key for a tablet of plastic. The perfection of parking the car at one's own door, where, upon entering, there's welcome—no matter how fierce the reek of Carpet Fresh in the shag rug, how shameless the pattern on the bedspread. Within these four walls (often the texture of cottage cheese), we find a remedy for driver's backache, chilly nights, and the narcosis of oncoming traffic. Who can resist turning on the TV to watch a rerun of Gunsmoke?Or checking out the bathroom with its thick soap wrappers, thin bath towels, and paper belt girdling the toilet seat?

The motel institutionalizes America's wanderlust and devotion to mobility, celebrating the unplanned stop. It steams with innuendo (as in the "no-tell motel") that touches our prudish fancy. And it reassures travelers that we can remake our identity once we've detached ourselves from personal accoutrements: here, in a space of no consequence, we are transformed, ready to roam.

Walk a few paces to the diner and you hear the singsong music of overalled men lamenting the cattle market and the rising cost of John Deere spare parts. Drink a beer, pig out on chicken-fried walleye, and imagine yourself Alexis de Tocqueville. The chatty waitress knows you're safe, since you'll be gone by morning. Her hardscrabble despairs and glories will now be yours to reflect upon once you've returned to the sanctuary of your room. There you can lie under synthetic blankets, read local real estate brochures, and dream of Iowa.

Architect Frank Gehry dismisses the motel's past with a quick aside: "Nostalgia," he says, "is about our insecurity." Gehry is anything but nostalgic. His Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, has been heralded by many of his peers as the most important building of our time. Recently he has been ruminating on motels. Ironically, for one so dismissive of nostalgia, he turned first to Airstream trailers. "You could set them up somewhere in Florida in winter. Kind of like modern prairie schooners. In summer, they would all be hauled north to another location, say in Maine. Why be site-selective when you can make the motel itself kinetic, a function of our culture?"

Gehry also sees a time when travelers will be able to customize their surroundings using the electronics of their automobiles. On arrival one will plug car into room to outfit one's overnight accommodation with personal modem, E-mail, and phone. "Can you imagine the day when, through these same electronics, you'll also pre-select background music and room décor?" Gehry asks. "Perhaps you'll want to transform an entire wall into a cozy image of your bedroom back home. Or maybe your taste runs to the Pyramids of Giza—whatever: at the touch of a button, you'd change a banal room into something highly individualized."

Gehry isn't just daydreaming. With his friend Jay Chiat, formerly CEO of Chiat/Day advertising, the architect may soon create the motel of the future. Chiat, a trustee of the Dia Center for the Arts, is involved in plans to move the organization's permanent collection into a former Nabisco factory in the town of Beacon, on the Hudson River about an hour and a half north of New York City. The area is short of places to stay, so new accommodations will be necessary.

"But Beacon doesn't need a hotel," contends Chiat. "A motel, on the other hand, would be perfect."

Gehry's Dia motel would be a work of art itself. Right now, we can only imagine the sight: its profile not rectilinear but free-flowing, perhaps, evocative of a bird's wing or the scaly surface of a fish. "Room rates wouldn't be exorbitant," Chiat predicts. "But at the same time, people would not expect great service, except at the world-class restaurant we plan to build nearby. After all, who wouldn't want to spend a night in a place like this?"

Destination motels are not necessarily on the mind of Troy Halterman, proprietor of the design shop Troy in New York's SoHo. His motel of the future is a study in simplicity. Inspired by prefabricated housing modules he saw at a construction site in Copenhagen, he envisions the motel as a Lego-like series of stacked cubicles, each in the shape of a cross.

Troy's motel may be a sporting challenge to the travel industry. Each unit contains a docking cubicle for a car so the guest can stay out of the rain when carrying in the luggage. Instead of a rug, the floor has seamless rubberized matting—washable after each visit. There's no dreary bedspread either; rather, the bed is covered with terry-cloth toweling that's easily laundered for the next guest. Toweling might even be snapped to the floor as a runner, and the window seat, concealed by a flexible panel, could be covered in the same washable material. "A motel room should be a place to restore your soul," Troy says. "I'm in favor of aromatherapy candles for each guest, and a car wash for each room. So when you leave in the morning both you and your car will be refreshed."

Blake Moore and Christiaan Bunce, the team behind the year-old firm Girth Design, would like to see a light, airy, open space that guests are free to define on their own. "Everyone feels compelled to explore a new environment," says Bunce. "Remember as a kid opening and closing all the drawers in a new motel room until you found the Bible?We wanted to bring that playful feeling to the whole room."

Guests are invited—no, required—to rearrange the space. The bed folds down from the wall, as does the table. Other furniture is small and portable."It's interactive in the most old-fashioned, low-tech way," explains Moore. "Every aspect of the layout must be engaged by the guest in order to function, and every object has an open-ended use." They've even thought of the car: strategically placed video cameras would let guests check their car on an in-house TV channel.

Decorator Greg Jordan, known for the elegant whimsy of his designs, remembers a motel near Dallas where the receptionist inquired: "Do you want the room with the BarcaLounger or the one with a table and two chairs?"

"Table and two chairs."

"Well," responded the doleful voice, "I'm afraid we're going to have to charge you thirty-nine dollars a night for that."

Honesty is what all motels should strive for, says Jordan. "Get rid of the gussying up. Creature comforts should be extremely frank. Spend the decorating budget on a truly good bed, a big TV, and reading lights not ashamed of themselves."

At present, classicist Michael Smith rarely stays in motels because, at least on the West Coast, he finds them "downtrodden." But he's certain that, if they were reframed as simple, reductive spaces with great linens and a classic-diner aesthetic, he'd become a regular. He believes much could be accomplished by upgrading bathrooms with "bright and inspiring colors."

Globe-circling decorator Bunny Williams recently drove from Jackson Hole to Sun Valley, stopping at B&B's and motels along the way. "If the motels had been better, I'd have booked them exclusively. Motels free you from the invasive personalities that are so often associated with B&B's." The three characteristics that Williams finds most obnoxious in motels: curtains that turn the room into a cave, textured paint on ceilings, and fluorescent lights in bathrooms. Her design, conceived with associate José Carlino, smartly overcomes these eyesores, reducing the room to essentials. Furniture—bought from a chain such as IKEA—is minimal and unpretentious. The simply crafted windows, highlighted by plantation shutters, admit light, guard privacy, and become the focal point.

Such universal enthusiasm for change is hard to suppress. While each of these designers believes the motel of today fails to deliver on its promise, each contends that it may be easy to fix. If only our motels were as great as our roads. If only they reflected America's cultural and geographic variety. What the designers are really saying is, "Motel industry, wake up and join the twenty-first century."

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