Staying In High Style

You are where you stay," hotel owner Ian Schrager once said. If that's true, then many of us have been as bland as a Holiday Inn, about as interesting as a wood-grain Formica television stand. 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, "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium" chain hotel are numbered. Water flowing down glass plates gives the hotel's lobby a serene, Zen-like feel. The staircase is wrapped in sequins. Glowing amber cubes serve as night tables. The swank, leather-and-pinstripe staff uniforms are by American designer Kenneth Cole. Beating the travel industry's--and especially New York's--post-9-11 doldrums, the W Times Square sold out only three months after it opened in January. With even the big hotel chains trying to get cool, designer hotels have graduated from insider tips traded by urban hipsters to the mainstream, increasingly popular with business travelers and regular folks.

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--can you sit on that chair or is it art? But the duo's instant notoriety helped revolutionize hotel design and spawned dozens of imitators. In the decade since then, the kind of eye-stopping design that we take for granted in cars and computers has invaded the hotel room.

As well as the hotel lobby, bar and restaurant. 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's high-style, multilevel restaurant was an instant hot spot when it opened, and not just for the hotel's guests. 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 generic, plush-carpet-and-floral wallpaper look won't cut it with younger, hipper 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 subbrand, employing star architects and designers like David Rockwell, who specializes in tony restaurant interiors (he did Nobu and Vong in New York), or Toronto-based Yabu Pushelberg, the studio that recently restyled Bergdorf-Goodman and Tiffany's. Marriott has teamed up with Bulgari in a $500 million joint venture to create a new designer-hotel chain. Bulgari isn't the only high-fashion brand getting in on the act: Karl Lagerfeld redid the Ritz-Carlton in Berlin, turning an early 1900s suburban mansion into a frenzy of gold leaf and crimson damask. The Kempinski chain's Palazzo Versace, on Australia's Gold Coast, is full of the late designer's whimsical, neo-Renaissance decor.

The good news, too, is that quirkiness is no longer a substitute for service. "For 10 years good design was a competitive advantage," says Claus Sendlinger, head of the Design Hotels marketing association in Munich. "Now it's a minimum requirement." Most of the newest of the cool hotels are as comfortable as they are stylish. Take the Deseo, on Mexico's Playa del Carmen, 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. At the Chambers in New York, the $275 room rate includes a full range of Aveda products to turn your bathroom into a spa. In Taiwan, the Singapore-based GHM Group has converted Chiang Kai-shek's former retreat on Sun Moon Lake into the island's first designer resort, wedding an Asian spa concept to cool Western design. We may never have to be generic again.