Given bloated property values, it’s unlikely that today’s tiny hotel rooms will grow bigger or that designers will be less inspired to squeeze function and interest out of every square inch.
Recently, over dinner with an urban photographer and a political reporter, I found the conversation turning to sprawl. It’s a topic that also appeals to lawyers and osteopaths and almost anyone owning property in the suburbs. Whole conferences, in fact, are devoted to the tendency of cities to elbow their way into fields and orchards, where they drop obese malls and tacky mansions. Not much comes out of these gripe sessions, though; it seems that Americans may whine, but in the end they just want to spread themselves over undeveloped territory, like children scuffing up a blanket of virgin snow.
Except in today’s hotel rooms. Check into, say, Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue W, and you’re likely to find yourself shuffling sideways around the bed. Show up with a partner at the city’s new Hudson, and you’ll be confined to the bed while your companion hogs all the available floor space. Rooms at the Shoreham are where you can finally learn to do the Hustle as you struggle to make your way to the bathroom. And unless you cut a deal, you will certainly pay more than $200 per night, and probably closer to $300 or $400, for these and other short-stay shoeboxes.
Why haven’t people rebelled against the horribly shrinking guestroom? Chalk it up to boutique hotels, which have improved the designs of their public spaces while reducing the square footage of their private ones. The Library, which recently opened in midtown Manhattan and has floors labeled according to the Dewey Decimal System, contains mostly tiny rooms with themed book collections. But guests aren’t confined to these chambers; they can also read in a parlor-like lounge with a fireplace or in a garden room with a view. Capturing the spirit of conservatories, manor houses, billiard rooms, and opium dens, hotel public spaces offer buffer zones between the isolated guestroom and strange, intimidating street; they are sites where people can be alone together and feel as if they’re altogether somewhere else. In the W’s nature-themed lobby or the Hudson’s baronial eatery, guests can gape at gorgeous baby hipsters who pour in off the streets. No wonder we haven’t heard many complaints about room sizes and prices . People seem to feel they’re getting their money’s worth from the spectacle of the public spaces alone.
In the case of the W (designed by Rockwell Group) and Hudson (designed by Philippe Starck), guests may also appreciate the ingenuity that courses through both projects, not least in the tiny rooms. The W’s provide views of Manhattan through a hole in the bed’s headboard, which faces the door; a visitor’s first glimpse from the corridor is of the wide world beyond the nutshell. Meanwhile, the Hudson’s boast wood-paneled walls that whisper “yacht cabin,” or, in the imagination of some guests, Cuban cigar box. Either way, the design language is luxurious, though the dimensions are miserly.
Given that property values remain bloated in cities like New York, it’s unlikely that hotel rooms will grow bigger or that designers will be less inspired to squeeze function and interest out of every square inch. So as a centerpiece of this March issue, devoted to hospitality design, we invited five firms to design a mythical hotel room of l40 square feet, including bath. We placed the hotel in San Francisco, perhaps the only city more expensive than our own, and gave it a slightly lurid history to encourage provocative concepts. Hoping that participants would apply unorthodox viewpoints, we invited mostly firms with no experience in hotel design. The results not only respond to the way we live away from home, but encapsulate (literally) our essential needs for work, recreation, and comfort anywhere we hang our hats.
Even in these guestrooms, sprawl is still an option: just look at the beds. There’s plenty of room for kicking off shoes and flinging down a tired body, which is all many of us really want to do at the end of the day. Call it suite surrender.