In today's hotels, it's all about making a splash.

Patrick Cariou
| Credit: Patrick Cariou

Let's begin with a confession: I swipe the soaps. Not all the soaps and not in every hotel. Just the ones at the Bristol in Paris. I take several from the morning cleanup and stash them in my suitcase. At turndown, more miraculously appear; I grab those too. What the housekeeper thinks of this fanatical cache can easily be imagined. She's probably waiting for me to walk off with the towels.

Am I nuts for presuming that everybody purloins "product"?The celebrity makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin once so lavishly consumed the Bulgari Green Tea Skin Care Collection provided at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles that, as he said, "I'm sure housekeeping thought I was drinking it." So what if he had been?Isn't product there to be used?Hoarding toiletries, however, as though one were the spawn of Howard Hughes or some sort of five-star hotel refugee, is another story. In my case, it is a habit particular to a single hotel.

The soaps at the Bristol come from Hermès's Eau d'Orange Verte line; each lilliputian bar is contained in a bottle-green plastic box with a neatly fitted lid. It is the perfect travel fetish object: looks good, barely registers as a scent (an important point for those of us determined to resist the plague of unwanted perfume), and generally classes up the Dopp kit. I am amassing this hoard, I persuade myself, as ammunition against the more, uh, pedestrian lodgings typical of my travels. It will indisputably be useful in, say, India, where hotel soaps called Foamy or Perk tend to smell like mothproofing disks, or else in American motels of the parking-lot-pool variety, where the mingy bathroom wafers invariably have a medicinal odor and come sheathed in paper that can't be removed without shreds of it sticking to your hands.

While there are many reasons to call the Bristol memorable, in an odd way it is the soap that earns my loyalty. It establishes something about the tone of the place, as definitively as the opulent flowers in the lobby and the assorted gilt Louis XV doodads. It subtly directs one's attention to how other details, such as those in the bathroom—and hence one's quarters in general—are deployed. The room has not only immense, thick bath sheets but also a chrome towel warmer, a lighted magnifying mirror, and a terry cloth—slipcovered scale. There is a stool on which to sit when clipping one's . . . well, you don't want to know. The hideous but seemingly obligatory hair dryer is discreetly tucked in a drawer, along with a sewing kit, cotton balls, and other sundries. These are small things, yes. But minutiae take on outsized importance in the tiny cosmos of a hotel room, a fact the industry has increasingly come to recognize.

While the "statement lobby"—now as dated as the cage elevator—recedes into memory, bathrooms have become what one architect calls ground zero of hotel design. To use fashion parlance, the bathroom is the new lobby.

"I don't think you can possibly overstate their importance," says André Balazs, the Conrad Hilton of hip hotels (Balazs is the proprietor of, among others, the Christian Liaigre—designed Mercer in New York and the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, perennial home of Starlets and the Men Who Love Them). The fascination with bathrooms in hotels seems to parallel the fixation on those in American homes; little more than a century after plumbing moved indoors, Americans have begun to entertain fantasies about their bathing rituals that rival the giddy excesses of Pompeii. In a study by the National Association of Home Builders, 2,000 householders surveyed cited the bath as the second room on their remodeling wish list, after the kitchen. "Americans are having a love affair with the bathroom," the organization's director, Gopal Ahluwalia, told the New York Times.

IF NOT A CERTIFIED TRUTH, IT IS CERTAINLY A much-quoted factoid: hotel industry studies show that guests spend as much as two-thirds of their en suite waking hours in the bathroom. This figure seems vaguely astonishing, until you subtract the eight hours one hopes to be in dreamland, and the roughly nine more spent away from the room doing business, getting fed, or scaling K2. Then it makes better sense.

And it provides a reason, in part, why hotel bathrooms, according to architect Calvin Tsao of Tsao & McKown in New York, have become a kind of laboratory for "serving people's expectations on a functional, emotional, and aspirational level." The desire to "romance everything" about hotel rooms is always present, claims Tsao, whose firm has designed hotels as disparate as the Tribeca Grand in New York, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, and the superluxe Wheatleigh in Lenox, Massachusetts. However, the impulse seems not to have manifested itself at most chain hotels I've lodged in. (The inevitable toilet-facing full-length mirror is not a detail to swoon over, in my humble view.) The challenge for designers, says Tsao, becomes how to assemble the symbols of emotional and aspirational fantasy without sacrificing "the way the room serves basic needs." What do you do, in other words, after you've put in the toilet, the sink, and the tub?

If you are the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco, you place wall speakers hooked up to the TV in bathrooms where you can look out on the Transamerica Pyramid from the tub. If you are the Park Hyatt Tokyo, you specify deep soaking tubs, double sinks, and toilet seats with heat sensors that automatically match the temperature of the sitter's behind. If you are the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay, you install Kohler tubs large enough for two standard-sized American adults or an entire Indonesian family. If you are Singita Private Game Reserve adjacent to South Africa's Kruger National Park, you place a tub by the window in each of the individual lodges, so that guests—or, at any rate, this guest—can indulge in the surreal experience of watching hippos wallow in a nearby river while being pleasurably parboiled.

"A lot of our development is based on increasing the feeling of sanctuary and holistic relaxation," says Nicole Aguirre, a spokeswoman for the 200-hotel Hyatt chain, as she describes the so-called wet bathrooms at the new Grand Hyatt Shanghai. Cylindrical glass "towers" there have three separate showerheads that, as Aguirre explains, "make guests feel as if they're being rained on," or else as if they'd booked a Scotch Douche with Frau Hannelore at Baden-Baden. Either way, the cloudburst effect must be amplified somewhat if you happen to be staying on the 85th floor.

"In many cultures, Asian ones especially," André Balazs says, "bathing is not an afterthought. It's both an intimate and a social act." The considerable influence of Asian aesthetics on contemporary hotel design helps account for a number of welcome trends in the way bathrooms are now being organized and fitted—more soaking tubs, a certain material restraint, less of the Carrara marble acreage so beloved of hotel chains and wedding factories. But the selfsame influence—think Anouska Hempel and Kelly Hoppen—can equally be charged with promoting unwelcome trends, such as the now commonplace gimmick of creating bathrooms in tiny nooks by "borrowing" space from the bedroom. Shoji screens may look serenely beautiful in magazine layouts, but in real life they're no aid to either romance or friendship, unless you find gargling erotic.

THE ZEN GLOW, AS IT HAS BEEN CALLED, is hardly the only design trick being used to bewitch the jaded luxury traveler. There is also the neocolonial fantasy so effectively summoned by the Raffles hotel group in its reconditioning of the once-faded grand hotels of Southeast Asia. At Le Royal in Phnom Penh, reopened in 1997, suites named for visiting dignitaries of the French colonial period are equipped with bathrooms—fog-free heated mirrors, vast claw-footed tubs, miraculously effective plumbing—that would have stunned even a practiced sybarite like André Malraux, never mind a traveler alert to the fact that most Cambodians bathe and relieve themselves in open waterways. There are some hotels that specialize in evoking an imaginary "country house" bathroom, the sort of place nabobs on the Grand Tour might have encountered if flush toilets had been widely known at the time. There are others, replete with thatch or driftwood or rope ladder details, that seek to evoke lodgings for the high-end castaway in an uncaring world. There is, of course, the neo-ethnic bathroom—carved wood stools, tribal shields, awkward basins, and always, it seems, some tortured method for hanging up towels.

Why not?Fewer people at the upper levels of hotel lodgings are going away exclusively on business. Or, rather, the lines between business and pleasure are less clearly drawn. Ask Uncle Sam. Or else ask Anthony Lee, the house manager of the seductively archaic Connaught Hotel in London (currently undergoing a discreet, and vaguely schizophrenic, rehabilitation: jackets are still required in the dining room, but there's a new high-tech fitness club). Conducting a guest on a tour of the hotel recently, Lee noted, "A large percentage of our clientele is high-end leisure. At their level, you're playing a game of golf and also closing a hundred-million-dollar deal." In a kind of innkeepers' version of trickle-down economics, expectations of the high-end leisure traveler are thought to exert a subtle influence on the trade as a whole.

Rather than being considered pods for sanitation and evacuation, hotel bathrooms, Balazs says, are now "theaters of operations." There's a "generational shift," he maintains, particular to the exacting and well-maintained traveler, whose portable battery of pills, mousses, sprays, perfumes, paints, and potions has traditionally received short shrift when it comes to an adequate staging ground. "The design briefs have tended to be pretty generic," Calvin Tsao tells me. "One sink or two?A bidet?The issues you're considering are how to deploy horizontal surface."

At the Tribeca Grand Hotel in Manhattan, the space allotted Tsao & McKown was a scant 54 square feet. "They're somewhat small," Tsao remarks tactfully of spaces that call to mind the sardine-can lavatories on airplanes, minus the diaper-changing shelf and the scary vacuum flush that threatens to pull the hair off your head. "So we created a panel next to the mirror for tissues, a makeup light, a small TV, and the outlets, and then we tried to organize things so that you know it's all there." Tsao & McKown made the bathrooms appear larger by unifying the materials, in this case "stainless-steel counters with an integral sink." The design choice was inspired not so much because stainless is the postmodern Formica, but because "it's a material you can cut into" to create efficient slots—think TV-dinner trays—with dedicated niches for hair dryers, Dopp kits, and soap.

At his newest hotel, the Standard near the Staples Center in Los Angeles, André Balazs "made a big commitment of space" for bathrooms. Whereas on most hotel projects "fifteen percent of the room is bath," at the Standard some baths take up nearly half the room. Certain suite bathrooms have even been given the gamma ray treatment: designed for basketball players who are in town to play the Lakers, they measure a whopping 270 square feet and have a sideshow quality, everything having been rendered at Shaq scale.

HOTEL GUESTS, SAYS LOUIS KIEVIT, sales director for the luxury Park Hyatt Chicago, "deserve to be wowed when they walk into the bathroom." To that end, the hotel provides a level of opulence so minutely detailed it comes close to inflaming the sensibilities of one's inner Puritan. Certainly, as Boswell observed, there is "nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn." But have we carried things too far when we install wall-mounted flat-screen televisions, individually wrapped wooden bath brushes, twin showerheads, double sinks, dual vanities, and an oversize soaking tub big enough for two?One "doesn't want for anything in these rooms," Kievit says. In reality, one doesn't want for things one hadn't thought of wanting in the first place. The Sony Wega television in the bedroom at the Park Hyatt is an example: chosen specifically for its screen, which can be viewed distortion-free from the tub, it permits guests to "lie back, light a candle, and watch their movie of choice without the picture being warped," Kievit explains. And should pairs-bathing (the next Olympic sport) fail to excite them, guests can flip open the tubside shutters and drink in the trillion-dollar city view.

The rest of us travelers have more prosaic concerns, and we can only hope that the hotel industry is taking note. When hotelier Conrad Hilton (dying words: "Always put the shower curtain inside the tub") described an ideal hotel room of the future, his wish list included television, portable libraries, sunlamps, portable beauty parlors, small freezers for ice cubes in each room, automatic telephones that record all calls, improved air-conditioning and ventilation, and other innovations. Many of his prophecies are now standard-issue, but the most desirable components of the ideal hotel room of the future are no different from that of the past: space, sanitation, and service.

Common to the memories I hold of all the hotel rooms I've stayed in—and these range from a stupendous suite at the Taj Exotica in Goa to a serenely cloistered room at the echt-sixties Camino Real in Mexico City to a hotel in Vicenza where the hallway bathroom could be made secure only by propping a hat rack against the door—is an uncanny sense of how well the bathrooms were laid out and maintained. Recently in Paris I found myself unaccountably upgraded to a suite at a celebrated luxury hotel, with views to the Tuileries and the Eiffel Tower.

In the bedroom, a forest of fake Louis XV furniture was arrayed with taste. A fruit basket rested on the bureau, along with orchids in moss from Christian Tortu. The bathroom, of course, was absurdly marmoreal and immense. Even before unpacking I decided that the toiletries seemed so luxurious that I'd break with spartan habit and draw myself a bath.

And that was when I saw it, stubbornly clinging to the enamel. Say what you will about fancy fittings, flattering lighting, and luxurious product; the memory I'll hold forever is of an errant, alien pubic hair stuck to the bathtub wall.