Stephen Bayley: Surly service and silly spa – it must be a design hotel

The View From Here

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The Independent Travel

I am interested in design and I enjoy hotels.

But when I see the two words joined together in the deplorable notion of "design hotel", I want to reach for my wrecker's ball. Design means intelligence applied with style. And a hotel should define and extend notions of hospitality. The phrase "design hotel" makes a travesty of each of its parts. A "design hotel" is the last place you would ever want to stay.

They must be avoided, if they cannot be demolished. Happily, the warning signs are clear. Even if Michelin Rouge has not yet devised a cute graphic device (sunglasses and a black polo neck, perhaps?) to supplement the existing rosettes and cutlery in its iconography, the observant will be alerted to the threat of "design" by some very obvious indicators.

There will be a table – very likely forbidding glass on metal trestles – in the lobby carrying unread copies of Wallpaper*. Additionally, for the bibliomaniac, there will be piles of ludicrous picture books about other hotels. You know: Vegan Spas of the Maghreb, Ayurvedic Inns of Guatemala, Cool Hotels in Silesia. There will be dichroic lights or Holophane prismatic luminaires, plus a "witty" sculpture.

The staff will be dressed as sombre Santa Semana penitents and, in defiance of generally accepted human norms of hospitality, are more likely to be concentrating on each other, than on the incoming victims (what we used to call "guests"). Maybe one will desultorily offer you a menu: it will promise "fusion" cooking or a "raw bar". And there will be a Vegan Spa. A spa, or what in olden days was known as a swimming pool, seems a necessary element in the "design hotel" concept. And the more absurd its offer, the more designed we are. Tyrolean Hot Rock Riesling Face Scrub, anyone?

I know a hotel in Paris which is the beau ideal of this perversion. In summer, it has a fake wood fire going on. One feature is a bar so threateningly ugly that it's unlikely that anyone has ever been known to use it. Bathrooms feature a sex toy and bedrooms have mood lighting operated by a console that requires the hand-eye co-ordination of a US Air Force drone operator in a Nevada cave. Green was, I recall, an option. Whatever mood does green seek to create? Or dispel?

Experts have identified the source of the "design hotel" plague as New York's West 44th Street in 1988. This was when the Royalton Hotel was given a life-threateningly humourless work-out. It was a charming 1898 original by Rossiter & Wright until Philippe Starck turned it into a pantomime of cheerlessly grim modernismo. Guests were apparently sternly discouraged from rearranging the ditsy little plates of salted almonds in the bar. A rash of imitators with difficult lighting, harsh surfaces and terrible feature furniture followed.

People used to criticise Detroit in the Fifties for "planned obsolescence", but at least the automobile makers generously satisfied the dreams of aspiring millions. The "design hotel" only ever spoke to an isolated minority, both fickle and credulous. Nasty, brutish and short? Certainly. And it's over.

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