The iconic hotel sign is not just a privacy device. It's a style statement. David A. Keeps decodes its message—and pinches a few souvenirs along the way

John Lawton

I was waiting...and waiting...for Jennifer Lopez in a suite she'd reserved at the Beverly Hills Hotel when I got a call from one of her people, telling me that the interview was being moved to the Polo Lounge. As I headed out of the room, I grabbed the pretty-in-pink Do Not Disturb sign, with its signature banana-leaf print, and slipped it in my bag. Two days later, La Lopez would marry Marc Anthony—but I had the real prize.

As hotel crimes go, this was a case of petty larceny, on par with pilfering stationery and toiletries. But for me, collecting the signs is an obsession that began in the late sixties, when my sister returned from a European tour. The multilingual hangers she brought back were the perfect gift for a sibling on the threshold of adolescence—cheap for my sister and educational for me, giving lessons in French (Ne pas deranger) and German (Bitte nicht stören). In college they got a lot more respect than a sock around the doorknob.

The Do Not Disturb sign has been around as long as there have been hotels where discretion was the better part of value. Giuseppe Pezzotti, a lecturer at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, traces its roots to the aristocracy: "The first widespread use was likely in the early twentieth century, in grand places such as the Ritz in Europe." But by the time I was prosperous enough to stay in good hotels, that most basic communication between lodger and staff had become generic—or extinct. At many resorts, I found a bedside switch that illuminated a light outside the room, or a lock into which one could insert before retiring a plastic key card reading Privacy Please. Both devices were utterly useless as a memento.

With the rise of boutique hotels in the nineties, even the most inconsequential items—notepads, laundry bags—bore the imprint of a brand-savvy graphic design team, and the Do Not Disturb sign went from dull to desirable again. It was the first W, in New York, that revived my itchy fingers. The property's die-cut door hanger read Go Away, Please, communicating in no uncertain terms the core values of what hotels provide: privacy and anonymity for an increasingly stressed-out populace. "Everybody is looking for a way to say they're not available," says Ross Klein, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of W Hotels Worldwide.

Though it was recently retired, the Go Away sign lives on; Klein estimates that more than 10,000 of them checked out along with the luggage. W's next model—When?Not Quite—debuts this summer. Klein ordered three times more than he needed, in anticipation of souvenir hunters. "We don't consider it theft," he says. "We believe the signs are being adopted into loving homes."

As a foster parent for hotel paraphernalia, I welcome the return of this cultural artifact—whether it's the embroidered pillows that hang from the knobs at Maryland's Inn at Perry Cabin or the clever magnetic Do Not Disturb disc that sticks to the metal door at the Maritime in New York (yes, it's on my refrigerator now). Others are as in-your-face as a subway ride: Manhattan's Le Parker Meridien borrowed the quintessential New York phrase Fuhgettaboudit. Kimpton Hotels has developed unique messages for each of its properties, from the jazz-centric Allegro in Chicago (Composing a Classic) to Washington, D.C.'s Pop art–styled Helix (Too Fabulous to Be Disturbed).

The trendy Do Not Disturb sign can have its drawbacks, however, at least according to Jason Pomeranc, co-owner of Thompson Hotels, which encompasses New York's 60 Thompson, the Hollywood Roosevelt, and the Sagamore in Miami Beach. The cardboard sign he created—which simply says Do Not Disturb—delighted two of his guests so much that they eschewed privacy, putting it in their suitcase instead of on their door. "I walked into a room I thought was empty, only to find the couple still in bed," Pomeranc recalls.

Nevertheless, catchy signs are catching on. The Wingate Inn, a chain of business hotels, has issued versions with goofy black-and-white photographs, such as a mad Einstein-like scientist (Ideas Hard at Work), that can be ordered for home use. A nice idea, but I'll collect mine the old-fashioned way: one hotel at a time.

DAVID A. KEEPS is the Los Angeles correspondent for Travel + Leisure.