BETTER BY DESIGN: WHAT DOES HOTEL DESIGN MEAN IN 2017?

1984, New York. The hotel that disco built will forever be pinpointed as ground zero for what the creative class call temporary homes today. Its genre-defining interiors by Andrée Putman; its opening of the floodgates for the waves that ‘boutique’ rode upon. An instant hit, Morgans quickly led to more hotels, another renowned French interior designer often at their creative helm — Philippe Starck’s aesthetic would become synonymous with the breed of hotel Morgans had unleashed, his impact destined to leave a design legacy on an entire generation.

Until then, of course, hotels had followed a similar set of rules. They ranged from seedy motels to filthy rich plush palaces, but a familiar formula had been struck. The hotels and B&Bs and Airbnbs we know and love today have been shaped by the design world — but what, in 2017, has design become? The world’s most prestigious coming together of design talent is a good place to ask that question. Beginning as a humble trade show in 1961, Milan’s week-long survey of the design industry has just wrapped up its 56th edition — as ever, design’s current state was afforded considerable contemplation.

ECAL, More Rules for Modern Life
ECAL, More Rules for Modern Life

One creative posing speculative queries will have been overly familiar with the hotel world pre-’84; artist and curator John Armleder, born to the owners of opulent Geneva hotel, Le Richemond. Armleder’s ‘Furniture Sculptures’ (wry juxtapositions of mundane objects and abstract art) spanning five decades of his career, the Swiss also knows a thing or two about interior design. Wearing his curatorial hat, it was thus entirely fitting that Armleder would pair Industrial Design and Fine Arts students together for ECAL (Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne)’s annual showing. Modular lighting; a children’s rocking zebra; unidentifiable hulks of plastic; a handless clock … a riot of visual bedlam, impossible to say which pieces are the result of an art education, which the fruits of a schooling in product design.

This deliberate obfuscation of boundaries is a ramshackle, loosely-formed answer to the question posed: what is design in 2017?

In another student show, Isa Andersson — of Stockholm’s Beckmans College of Design — presented a free-blown glass traffic cone that symbolises the invisible rules of social convention; Norwegian designer Sigve Knutson applies the spontaneity of drawing to sculpture, and his lumpy pieces that defy categorisation were one of this year’s star showings; British designer Max Lamb used waste cotton and wool to create a series of benches and force the industry to reassess its use of resources; and Atelier Biagetti theorised money and power as ‘GOD’, in a series of works that encapsulate the world’s collective fixation with both.

Atelier Biagetti / Sigve Knutson
Atelier Biagetti / Sigve Knutson

Another year of the design elite strutting their stuff; another year when those who operate on their industry’s misty fringes have run away with the plaudits. Design objects? Works of art? The lines are so frayed they now barely exist.

The Line, Los Angeles
The Line, Los Angeles

Hotels continue to expand on that blueprint set in 1984. They know the creative class crave art and culture — one would expect, then, design’s brave new frontiers to be all over new openings. Not so. I proffer that hoteliers in 2017 could dare to be a little bolder. Which is not to say that nobody is taking the art-design bull by its horns. Allowing design studio Döðlur to literally run riot, Reykjavík’s ODDSSON is a brash homage to both low- and high-culture; a vision where iconic design through the decades butts against custom-made pieces and jarring surfaces.

March Studio’s sculptural timber lobby for Canberra’s Hotel Hotel is a fitting welcome for a property bursting at the seams with independent designer collaborations. Sean Knibb, at the time primarily known as a landscaping consultant, defied convention with his abrasive approach to Los Angeles hotel The Line. Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Hanna Maring’s use of a wooden bathtub and bright semi-transparent screens for her Bathing Bikou suite at Amsterdam’s Volkshotel looks every bit the Milan Design Week exhibition stand. But.

Volkshotel / ODDSSON
Volkshotel / ODDSSON
Casa Flora, Venice
Casa Flora, Venice

But. But. But. A quick run through LE’s much-loved Master List of 2017 Worldwide Hotel Openings reveals a somewhat staid view of the design industry. Here are the designs presented at the moneyed showrooms and occupying grand stands in exhibition halls — where are the graduates with the fervent creativity and inability to distinguish between interiors and art? Where are the pioneers dripping in disdain for the old order?

I get it. Big bucks backers, logistics and practicality, comfort (‘literally sleeping in a dumpster would have been more comfortable,’ spewed Moby of a few nights spent in a Zaha Hadid Architects-designed bedroom) … there are plentiful sensible reasons why snotty design prodigies aren’t let off their reins on multimillion-pound projects. But then it’s those projects so oft-cited on these and similar pages, where uninhibited creativity has run amok, who are hailed as innovators to follow. Some risks are worth taking.

Talking of projects oft-cited, Barcelona’s Casa Bonay shares values with the aforementioned Hotel Hotel (so good they named it twice … sorry), and offers an interesting compromise that sees all boxes neatly ticked. Overseen by Brooklyn-based design firm Studio Tack, the hotel has a sensible uniformity, yet has collaborated (and continues to) with emerging design talent. Over in Venice, local designers and artisans have been called on for collaboration, too, more than 20 involved in decadent design-den Casa Flora; an apartment cum hotel that offers the best of both worlds — and, most importantly, some exceedingly lovely design pieces. The coup de grâce? Casa Flora’s owners have ensured that everything you see is available to buy.

Microluxe
Microluxe

The sleep and shop hybrid might not be an entirely new phenomenon, but it is a trend that has grown legs and is running. In fact, it could give Usain Bolt a run for his money. Over in Melbourne, Studio Edwards has devised a series of spaces that operate under the guise of Microluxe — each a small, residential style abode, each stocked with design treats that can be taken away (at a discount) or bought online. And that includes everything from a Le Corbusier leather sofa to a Bang & Olufsen sound-system.

Los Angeles-based homewares brand Parachute have taken the ‘store-tel’ concept to the nth level, recently opening the doors of The Parachute Hotel; a jaw-dropping 2,200-square foot penthouse that doesn’t really know whether it’s a showroom, hotel, or rental property. What it does know is that it looks very fancy indeed, and embodies all that it needs to of the brand’s aesthetic and maker-minded principles. A contemporary design brand with billions in revenue, West Elm is diving into the same pool, but set to make a considerably greater splash; recently announcing a whole chain of hotels, with the first scheduled to open late next year. Detroit headlines a list of five secondary cities in their launch ‘collection’.

The Parachute Hotel, Los Angeles
The Parachute Hotel, Los Angeles

It’s a little while now since I introduced the Hotel Gift Shop 2.0 to these pages — does the ‘store-tel’ sound its death knell? Are we really ready for the Hotel Gift Shop 3.0 so soon? Frivolity aside, this formula is one that can offer hoteliers wooed by design’s coalescence with fine art, yet anxious of its seeming impracticality, an entry-level ticket into a more radical world. The bold kitschiness of ODDSSON might not seem such a stretch to a straight-laced investor if there’s the opportunity of making £1,000s on a rare Ettore Sottsass piece from his Memphis Milano days; or if a trailblazing graduate can be tied into an exclusivity deal on their coveted design week moment. The shop and the stay are another line moving quickly out of focus.

Of course, design in 2017 is about more than an intersection between itself and art. It is about multi-sensory experiences and positive impact on increasingly choked urban environments; it is about personal wellness, and making technology more human; design is about the future and our shifting living patterns; it is about those designers being able to harness all the new tools and techniques that are shaping our lives. There is so much happening in the design world today that it is almost impossible to distill its greatest achievements into the hospitality experience. But that shouldn’t stop rebels and radical thinkers from trying.

The safe excuse of convention should not be lent on like those comfy but decrepit shoes you just can’t throw away. Live and breathe design in its flux, step off the beaten track, meet those up-and-coming talents, understand their challenging views, embrace them. It might seem like a runaway train, but design is the driver … if a little reckless.

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James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.