Let's Stay In Style

"You are where you stay," hotel owner Ian Schrager once said. If that's true, then many of us are Holiday Inns. And by the same token, many of us are going to become much more hip, as chic designer hotels come to dominate the industry.

Judging by properties like the new W Times Square in New York, the days of the generic hotel are numbered. Water flowing down glass plates gives the hotel's lobby a Zen-like serenity. The staircase is wrapped in sequins. Glowing amber cubes serve as night tables. The swank leather-and-pinstriped staff uniforms are by American designer Kenneth Cole. Rising above New York's post-September 11 doldrums, the W Times Square sold out only three months after it opened in January.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, the Four Seasons chain, known for plush but predictable luxury, will soon open a branch at the ultra-contemporary, glass-clad Pacific Century Place in the central business district. It's a trend. With even the big hotel chains trying to achieve cool, designer hotels have gone mainstream, becoming increasingly popular with business travelers and regular folk.

That's due in large part to Schrager, the former nightclub owner who in the late 1980s teamed up with the enfant terrible of interior design, Frenchman Philippe Starck, to revamp New York's Paramount and about a dozen other hotels worldwide. Their over-the-top style can be almost frightening--do you sit in that chair, or is it art? But the duo's instant notoriety helped revolutionize hotel design and spawned dozens of imitators.

In London, the stately Mandarin Oriental at Hyde Park last year saw its bar and restaurant remodeled by American designer Adam Tihany, and since then the hotel has turned into a buzzing meeting place for the local scene. In Manhattan, the Chambers has brought a downtown industrial esthetic to a theater district dominated by generic Sheratons and Marriotts. In Miami's art deco district a whole string of vintage hotels have been revived with sleek modern design.

In a way, the idea of a hotel as a style statement harks back a century or more, long before Holiday Inns and Motel 6s, when the grand hotels of New York, Paris and Shanghai were more than just places to stay. They were magnets for urban society, elaborate public stages for the bourgeois and their vanities, and showcases of the latest and grandest in Belle Epoque style and architecture. (Think of all the old movies that take place in hotel lobbies--from Chaplin's "A King in New York" to "Grand Hotel," where Greta Garbo utters her immortal line "I vant to be alooone.")

Today that style statement has been democratized. The ticket to membership is no longer wealth but discernment: witness the surprisingly large number of "designer" hotels in the two- to three-star category. The German Art'otel chain has artsy accommodations at midrange prices, and at Schrager's Hudson in New York, rooms start at $95.

Even the chains are seeing that their plush-carpet-and-floral-wallpaper look won't cut it with younger travelers. In 1988 Hyatt launched its Park Hyatt brand of properties, whose clean, Japanese-inspired design appeals to an upscale crowd. Starwood Hotels, parent company of the Sheraton chain, is aggressively expanding its W Hotels sub-brand, employing star architects and designers like David Rockwell, who specializes in tony restaurant interiors (Nobu and Vong in New York), or Toronto-based Yabu Pushelberg, the studio that recently restyled Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany. Marriott has teamed up with Bulgari in a $500 million joint venture to create a new designer-hotel chain.

Still, quirkiness is no substitute for service. "For 10 years, good design was a competitive advantage," says Claus Send-linger, head of the Design Hotels industry association in Munich. "Now it's a minimum requirement." And in these more sober, somber times, loud, in-your-face design is no longer what it's about. Most of the newest of the cool hotels are as comfortable as they are stylish. Take the Deseo, on Mexico's Playa del Carmen, 20 miles south of Cancun. Sumptuous, oversize beds roll out of the room and onto the deck, letting you lounge by the pool all day without actually getting up. In Taiwan the Singapore-based GHM Group has converted Chiang Kai-shek's former summer retreat on Sun Moon Lake into the island's first luxury designer resort, wedding an Asian spa concept to cool Western design. If this wedding catches on, with any luck we may never have to be generic again.