At home on the road

What’s the minimum you look for in hotels?

For me, a hotel has to be at least as comfortable as my own home, which honestly isn’t saying much because my own home isn’t that comfortable.  But it’s mine — well, mine and the bank’s — and that means I know how the lights go on and off, how to turn up the heat or air conditioning, how the drapes open and close and how to operate the shower. 

In my own home, despite it needing a lick of paint and the boiler not being in its first flush of youth, I get cotton sheets, reasonably clean towels and high-speed internet. And I can make a cup of tea or coffee any time of the day or night without having to ask someone’s help and without it costing me an arm and a leg. In a hotel, I expect nothing less — and so should you.

But now we have design hotels, where everything looks insanely on trend, or beyond trend, but nothing really adds up. Part of me dislikes design hotels intensely — the presumption that the developer or designer knows my taste better than I do. But then again, another part of me salutes them — or the best of them. The bravura, the vision, the nous, the chutzpah, the sheer cleverness, the way design never sits still and won’t let us, the hotel guest, sit still either.  

A deluxe one-bedroom suite at the Crosby Street Hotel, New York. Photograph by Simon Brown.

And the crux of it is this — the best design hotels don’t date. Take Hotel Arts Barcelona. Opened in 1992, just in time for the Barcelona Olympics, the Arts is widely looked upon as one of the first “design” hotels and, on a recent revisit, let me tell you, it looked as new and fresh as the first time I stayed there, more than 20 years ago. Beautiful handmade furniture, “timeless” taupe and cream upholstery, an abundance of blond wood and sympathy of scale mean that for me the Arts will always be number one in the Catalan capital. 

Not only does good design not date, as opposed to fashion, but the best of it goes hand in hand with comfort, something that the best designers — and the best hoteliers — totally get, like Tim and Kit Kemp. Their clutch of London hotels, including the Covent Garden Hotel, the Haymarket, The Soho and Ham Yard, a kind of bucolic urban retreat improbably located just off Piccadilly Circus — celebrate bold and witty design, while always digging deeper to find ways to coddle and pamper their guests. 

The unique Kemp aesthetic has also shifted seamlessly to New York. In 2009, they opened the Crosby in Soho, where the brick, stone, glass and industrial minimalist design belies sumptuous interiors and old and modern art, juxtaposed with vibrant fabrics, avant-garde cocktails and classic English afternoon tea, all combining to provide a thoroughly eclectic — but cohesive — experience.

Last year, the Kemps followed up with The Whitby in midtown — clean lines, geometric patterns, a psychedelic riot of purples, greens and mauves with chevrons and ogees running amok. If it has to be a design hotel, please let it be The Whitby.

Of course, design is not a one-way street or ocean. On the other side of the Pond in the neighborhood of Shoreditch — London’s hipster answer to Brooklyn — Michael Achenbaum of New York City’s Gansevoort fame, has opened the 120-room Curtain hotel, a purpose-built, utilitarian-looking red brick building, complete with exposed brick walls and black-framed factory windows. 

So far, so bad, but at The Curtain I quickly discovered that the design indeed pays homage to this gritty part of London, while staying focused on comfort and convenience. The guest rooms and bathrooms are an ergonomic dream — everything is where you want or need it to be — and, crucially for Shoreditch, the hotel boasts no fewer than seven bars, plus a trolley that comes a-callin’ by your room at cocktail hour. How cool is that? 

There’s a rooftop pool, naturally, where the sun always seems to shine (in London, yet) and the icing on the cake is that Marcus Samuelsson has opened a branch, or perhaps one should say a version, of his Red Rooster restaurant in the basement, so that homesick Harlemites or Southerners can get their chicken fix.

Are you going to Melbourne, Australia, anytime soon? No, me neither, and more’s the pity, since it’s summer there while it’s winter here. But if I were, I’d be staying at the Ovolo Laneways, because for all its overwrought design, mismatched fabric, clinical white walls and curious curios, it’s a supremely comfortable kind of place, located right where I want to be by Parliament Station in downtown.

LIDO at The Curtain, London. Photograph by Adrian Houston.

Nearer than Australasia, you really must try the new Kimpton DeWitt in Amsterdam, where Ava Bradley’s contemporary design incorporates the softest fabrics and the smoothest bed linen, with a pastel palette that instinctively feels right. 

And back on this side of the Pond once more, I’m excited about the opening slated for next year of the Baltimore Revival, from the smart Colorado-based Joie de Vivre hotel group, which with their quilts, local art and wood-paneled headboards seems to understand that design has its place but never at the expense of comfort. 

Design can answer for a multitude of sins. I don’t want to sit at a table so low that my legs go into spasm as I try to tuck them under it or suspend myself in a kinky wicker cradle masquerading as a chair, looking like a self-conscious extra in “Emmanuelle ll.” I really would prefer not to recline on a chaise longue so “designed” it destroys my lumbar or perch awkwardly in a hotel lobby on an inflatable sofa that squelches embarrassingly and makes my limbs go into free fall. 

And, while we’re on the subject, not that I’m a technophobe or anything, I don’t necessarily want to press buttons to make blinds go up and down, feeling like the baddie in a bad Bond movie, or order my soft-boiled eggs on an iPad or download an app so that I can check in a day in advance on my smart phone, or worse, be checked in by a robot. 

Because it really is happening, and it’s happening at a hotel near you soon. So to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, good design and innovation for design and innovation’s sake, but common sense for God’s sake.

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