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Being Modern: Boutique hotels

They say that in London, you're never more than seven feet away from a rat. They also say that in the event of a nuclear war, the only thing to survive would be cockroaches. But they said both of these things before the advent of boutique hotels.

Once the term given to small, independent hotels that prided themselves on creating the kind of charming, individualistic space suited to the charming individuals we imagine ourselves to be when travelling rather than holidaying, these money-spinners are now to travel agents what the pied-à-terre is to estate agents. These days, so-called boutique hotels are popping up with the ubiquity of those rats and the tenacity of those cockroaches, and often the same appeal. It wasn't always thus.

When savvy hoteliers Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell opened Morgans in New York in 1984, Rubell coined the term to express the idea that the venture was like a boutique as opposed to a department store. Morgans was intimate, quirky and original, and proved a big hit with visitors keen to experience something more personal than the big-brand brashness of the "greed is good" era.

The notion spread like wildfire. Europeans, who, thanks to limited space, have always had boutique-sized hotels, albeit rather grungy ones, were quick to jump on the bandwagon, and from Leeds to Llandovery, hoteliers and B&B owners bought up swathes of Osborne & Little fabrics and pored over heritage paint charts, becoming experts in thread counts and au fait with Frette.

But it couldn't last – and it didn't. Standards slipped, definitions became vague and soon enough there were chain-boutique hotels whose restrained colour palettes, flat-screen TVs and White Company toiletries made them indistinguishable from big international chains. Worse still, boutique hotels would define themselves as such by buying lorryloads of coloured scatter cushions from Primark. And no one wants to shop in a boutique store that's turned into a Poundstretcher, do they? Yolanda Zappaterra