As the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt Museum mounts a show devoted to the hotel, David Rimanelli takes a second look at the lobbies, the suites, and the outré details that make the hotel more than just a place to lay your head

A century ago, the avid traveler had to actually book a compartment on the Orient Express or go big-game hunting to feel as if he were on the Orient Express or big-game hunting. Now any major city in the world can probably offer at least one hotel that takes you somewhere else: Blake's in London, with its Chinese Room and Corfu Suite; San Francisco's Clift, with its Art Deco bar fashioned from California redwood; Dubai's Burj al-Arab, with its underwater restaurant arranged around a circular aquarium. The Gustave Flaubert route to exoticism—go to Egypt, dress up in native garb, marvel at antiquities, write letters to one's beloved maman, contract syphilis—is too labor-intensive, not to mention dated and unhealthy. But as more and more of us mere mortals find ourselves perforce world travelers, the hotel has extended its reach, drawing on global culture as the raw material for increasingly elaborate fantasies.

How many of us have on one trip or another conceived of the hotel as our final destination?The service-oriented business hotel with its pale scenarios of luxury and escape—the pool shaded by a few sickly palm trees, the lobby fountain encircled by a sofa of purple velvet—has now been happily subsumed into its more imaginative, elliptical cousin, as hoteliers (never forgetting the Internet hookup or the phone near the tub) devise ever more ingenious pit stops from New York to London to Tokyo and beyond. Paradoxically, though, the hotel is no longer the embodiment of dizzying mobility, but exists in a kind of suspended animation—not a real place, but a place as we would like it to be. The kind of place where a hookah might naturally coexist with a Moderne couch, as it did in Istanbul's Hilton, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1955. It is the hotel as repository of our notions of what travel should be that the Cooper-Hewitt's exhibition "New Hotels for Global Nomads" takes up. The show begins with the early 19th century and ends in an indeterminate future. Photographs, artists' projects, computer animations, and re-creations of hotel rooms trace the history of the hotel and its evolution into a modern dream factory.

Curator Donald Albrecht makes a case not only for the roots of our obsession with the hotel but for the sources of its architecture. If César Ritz's elegant hotels were modeled on the homes of the aristocracy, Albrecht argues, the avatars of the modern hotel sprang up mostly in the New World, and were conceived on a much larger, more populist scale. The Neoclassical façade of the Tremont House in Boston, built in 1829, served as a model for big hotels well into the 20th century. Rather like Vegas's Venetian, though less gaudy, it was meant to promote an ideal of democratic splendor, one in which people of different classes could mingle amid the opulent pageantry of capacious public spaces. Each guest room was equipped with washbowls and free soap, establishing the practice of dispensing complimentary toiletries. The Tremont House also set the standard for modular architectural layouts, with the hotel divided into more or less equal units. (The Cooper-Hewitt show suggests some connections between older versions of the hotel and more space-age designs, such as the Japanese capsule hotel, an extreme case of modular uniformity composed of stackable, sci-fi, "Danger-Will-Robinson" pods.)

Not everyone, Albrecht points out, was as pleased as English novelist Anthony Trollope with the relative inclusiveness of the American hotel. The American-born Henry James disparaged this "democratization of elegance," preferring the more class-conscious European model. James might have been a snob, but he was right about this democratization process—at least to a point. Today's brand-name hotels—the W's, Four Seasons, Peninsulas, and Ritz-Carltons—promise the visitor, any visitor with the means, an experience of glittering, ubiquitous tastefulness and an exclusivity that is equal parts real and imaginary.

It's no secret that contemporary hoteliers like Ian Schrager and André Balazs were forced to find a newer model of specialness than mere luxury, one that cashed in on slick design and suggestive locales. The Mondrian in Los Angeles and the Delano in Miami Beach, formerly dreary hotels, were subjected to budget face-lifts (it's amazing how much Philippe Starck can do with just slipcovers) and reborn as places for the upwardly mobile, lovers of swinging novelty. Upping the ante, Jean Nouvel's Hotel Lucerne in Switzerland projects on the walls and ceilings images from films by Buñuel, Fassbinder, Almodóvar, and Bertolucci—among others—enlarged but tightly cropped, often with a sharp erotic charge. (Fade in. Fade out.) In such a cinematic environment, simply turning on the tap takes on a surreal narrative import.

This collision of the mundane and the fantastical is of course at the center of the hotel experience. What "New Hotels for Global Nomads" explores, often in eyebrow-raising detail, are the ways in which the hotel reflects not only how we travel but how we live. One section is devoted to fantasy, actual and virtual. In Japan, where space and privacy are hard to come by, "love hotels" provide practical solutions to trysting dilemmas, in rooms that seem earmarked for some adult-motel theme park. Guests are ingeniously screened from one another and from the staff; as they enter, they can select a room from a menu of backlit options. Meet you in: S&M, Gone with the Wind, Vegas, Niagara Falls, etc.

The hotel's promise of anonymity and louche pursuits has been mined by no one so well as by André Balazs, who established both of his L.A. Standard hotels in neighborhoods seemingly impervious to upscale trend-making. Not to worry: the seedy environs only served to enhance the hotels' cachet, providing an instant mise-en-scène for a clientele of younger travelers hungry for high-style concepts in previously derelict, "edgy" areas. In fact, these hotels look a lot like the industrial loft spaces coveted by these selfsame globe-trotting urbanites.

The degree to which the hotel shapes our landscape hasn't escaped the notice of the show's curators. We are treated not just to the predictable eco-lodges that copy local architecture down to the thatched roofs and mud-brick walls, but to Andreas Gursky's 46-by-59-foot Cibachrome of a generic high-rise hotel in Taipei; Swiss architect Peter Zumthor's take on the Swiss spa, a minimalist structure of thinly cut local stone that slides seamlessly into its Alpine backdrop; and Tom Sachs's Compact Full-Feature Hotel Room, which, like Louis Vuitton's own 1879 camp bed that folded into a trunk, makes the most of a small space.

If artists and architects have spent a lot of time imagining and re-imagining the hotel, so, it turns out, have the rest of us. Hotels have come to enjoy such a privileged place in the delirious realm of personal and social fantasy that the line between home and hotel can seem hopelessly blurred. The all-white room has found its way into more than one Manhattan loft and suburban McMansion. Hotel towels, sheets, and cutlery are sold in housewares stores as if the hotel insignia automatically made them worth having. So what is the hotel to do?This is perhaps the most interesting question raised by the show. As the luxury hotel is copied not just by its poorer cousins but by decorators and architects, it finds it needs to ceaselessly reinvent itself. So far, we continue to be seduced.

David Rimanelli is a New York-based art critic and curator.

"New Hotels for Global Nomads" is sponsored in part by Travel + Leisure, and runs October 29-March 2 at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 2 East 91st Street, New York; 212/849-8400.