SHEILA PEPE, A BESPECTACLED ARTIST with a knowing smile, stands in a hallway of the new Chambers Hotel finishing an installation titled Different Things with Fixed and Ambiguous Pictures. Pepe is attaching tiny sculptures made of plaster and aluminum to a wall facing the elevator, then tracing a line around their shadows to highlight recognizable shapes, “like when you play cloud games as a kid,” she explains. At the Chambers, which opened in late February on West 56th Street in Manhattan, promising new artists and some better-known veterans, like the filmmaker John Waters, were hired to design site-specific installations for the landings of the third through the fourteenth floors. Museum Editions, an arts consultancy, selected scores of other artworks for the 77 rooms and the lobby.
The art–impossible to miss–is hung in seemingly haphazard configurations to reflect a private collector’s eclectic taste. “In most other cases, the architecture dictates the art,” says Kimberly Silvia of The Rockwell Group, which designed the Chambers. “Here we want you to look at the art.” The hotel even plans to broadcast a video by Whitney Biennial artist Jeremy Blake on its in-house TV channel.
Hotels evolve with the times. The palatial suites and ballrooms of the 19th century indulged a bejeweled leisure class. Then came Hiltons and Sheratons as conformist as IBM’s dress code, and no wonder: they catered to mass markets and tired businessmen. The boutique hotel marked an era when capitalism turned cool and the workday naturally spilled into the lobby bar. Now comes the next evolutionary step in hospitality: the art hotel.
Art hotels like the Chambers shouldn’t be confused with hotels that have a lot of art. What distinguishes them is the role art plays in their identities and marketing. Art endows the art hotel with a priceless aura of high culture. As New York, London, and Berlin overflow with designer lodgings, the art hotel attracts sophisticated clients who have grown jaded with boutiques and entices them to linger and return.
As a rule, art hotels feature internationally recognized painters and sculptors, or young artists gaining legitimacy in art-world circles. This sets them apart from “hip hotels,” but also from quirkier establishments (say, New York’s Chelsea Hotel) that display canvases by friends and debtors of the owner, or idiosyncratic art spaces that function as hotels, such as Berlin’s Propeller Island City Lodge (home of “the world’s smallest hotel room, full of dwarves”).
Several cultural trends converge in art hotels. Boutique hotels broke new ground in sophistication in the 1980s–the same decade when visual artists gained genuine star appeal. Tastes are changing. In the ‘905, executives switched from Brooks Brothers to Comme des Garcons. The road warriors of the fashion and media industries–many of them women–tuned in to art in a way the old boys hadn’t. Gone, too, are the days when Mark Rothko resented having his paintings hang in the Four Seasons restaurant. These days, artists embrace design openly, and they are more willing to take on commercial projects. Think of Damien Hirst’s Gesamtkunstwerk restaurant, Pharmacy, in London, or Andreas Gursky’s monumental photographs to be installed in Rem Koolhaas’s Prada emporia. “Since the time of Warhol, artists have stopped feeling like monks who have to pray before the sacred flames,” says philosopherand art critic Arthur C. Danto. “They are willing to consider most propositions. Aleksandr Rodchenko’s idea–‘art into life’–h as been enthusiastically endorsed.”
In its purest manifestation, the art hotel is the brainchild of Dirk Gadeke, an ebullient Berlin developer and art collector. He came up with the idea more than a decade ago in Paris, while dining with his friend, the irreverent and prolific German artist Wolf Vostell. “I had so much of his work, but he wanted to sell me more,” Gadeke remembers. “So I said, ‘Let’s do this as a hotel.’ Then I made this idea into a marketing concept, and it went all over the world.”
Gadeke’s approach is “one hotel, one artist,” and he uses only brand-name painters and sculptors whose work he and his wife collect. The first “art’otel,” an unpretentious three-star business accommodation full of Vostell works, opened in 1990 near West Berlin’s Kurfurstendamm, the city’s main commercial street. “Most people thought I made a design hotel, like the Royalton,” Gadeke says. “But I made an art hotel–first art, then hotel.” Managed by the Sorat chain, and expanded in 1996 to 33 rooms, the hotel offers public areas, hallways, and guestrooms chockablock with pictures, sculptures, and mixed-media works, including a 12-foot sculpture on the roof. Lamps project room numbers on the floors. The carpets, designed by David Hockney, display representations of doormats and runners woven directly into the fabric.
Next came art’otel Potsdam, matching Dusseldorf artist Katharina Sieverding with English designer Jasper Morrison. It was the first art’otel to connect a new building, by Ralf and Jan Rave, to a historical edifice, an 1848 Italian castello. The German neo-expressionist A.R. Penck was selected for the third project, in Dresden, along with the Italian interior designer Denis Santachiara. The 174-room hotel is also crowned by a sculpture, and it includes an art gallery (the Kunsthalle Dresden) that doubles as a conference room.
Gadek fully realized his concept of integrating art and architecture with the 109-room art’otel Baselitz, which opened two years ago in the Mitte section of East Berlin. The blending of contemporary design with the rococo Ermelerhaus, formerly the palatial residence of a beer merchant that houses a well-known restaurant of the same name, is the work of Johanne Nalbach, one of Europe’s few successful female architects, Nalbach designed hovering cantilevered furniture for the guestrooms. Carpets, which change hues from floor to floor, appearing in red, green, blue, or aubergine, are inscribed with a quote from Aristotle about the meaning of art (in the hand of Nalbach’s husband and business partner, Gernot). The result balances Georg Baselitz’s somewhat melancholy monochromatic watercolors and lithographs with colorful, functional interiors. Nalbach did not collaborate directly with Baselitz: “You can’t create a room for the artist,” she says. “Architecture is an art and painting is an art. The space should be neutral, like a museum.”
Gadeke is a restless sort of man, and he has aggressively pursued his dream of exporting the art’otel brand. Teaming up with Jonathan Read, chairman of the Tucson-based Park Plaza group and a fellow art collector, he has franchised art’otels around the world. A four-star art’otel opened last year in Budapest, owned by another German art collector, Joseph Domberger. The new building, by Magyar Epitok, overlooks the Danube and incorporates four beautifully restored baroque fishermen’s houses. What makes the Budapest project stand out from the other art’otels is the level of involvement by Donald Sultan, a minimalist American artist known largely for prints. In addition to supplying 600 works featuring his signature lemons, flowers, and butterflies, Sultan designed the domino and playing card motifs on the hotel’s carpets and tableware. His tiny bird sculptures greet guests in all 165 rooms. He even designed the restaurant menus.
With the formula established, art’otels are now planned for London, Paris, Rome, Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Satellites will eventually open in NewYork, Tokyo, Sydney, Singapore, San Francisco, Dublin, Bilbao, and Barcelona. Gadeke will open the art’otel Warhol in Berlin later this year, and he is exploring a Warsaw project with Daniel Liebeskind. Rebecca Horn, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, and James Rosenquist are among the artists being considered for future projects. Meanwhile, kindred art hotels are sprouting from London to Zurich. London’s Westbourne, for instance, has commissioned four British artists to design a guestroom each and is hanging rotating exhibitions of “Brit Art” in the lodging’s remaining 16 rooms and the lobby.
Gadeke’s idea is far from cheap. Single-artist projects require hundreds of artworks, including major canvases and sculptures — a volume few artists can match. Even at wholesale prices, museum-quality art is expensive, but younger artists, though more affordable, have limited branding potential. There are security concerns (to date no thefts have been reported from any art hotel, but hefty insurance policies must be taken out to protect artworks from sticky fingers). Legal contests may arise when the permanent installations are demolished or repurposed.
At the Chambers, artists sign a contract to maintain their installations. Even so, wear and tear is inevitable. Most important, according to Chambers developer Ira Drukier, the art hotel concept added about 20 to 25 percent to the $34-million development costs and almost 50 percent to the construction timeline. Gadeke estimates that art’otels cost about $175,000 per room to design and construct, a 30 percent markup from the usual $135,000. These expenses predispose art hotels to a five-star clientele. But Gadeke is wary of luxury. “My target group is people who have art in their head. I have to keep my hotels to three or four stars, because intelligent people don’t have money.”
Matching the art with the right design is the greatest challenge. There are three options: the interior design can take thematic cues from the lifestyles of artists and art collectors; it can counterbalance the emphasis on art with its own powerful visual language; or it can remain totally neutral. The strategy is a matter of tension and balance. In Dresden, Denis Santachiara’s liquid-crystal “magic windows” (which expose the bathrooms and turn milky white with the flick of a switch), his strange “welcoming lamps” (they blow air on yellow silk after a guest enters), and his eccentric yellow “reception egg” are willfully at odds with A.R. Penck’s rough-hewn, somber works. Such ornaments and contrasts are anathema to Berlin’s Johanne Nalbach, proponent of the museum approach, who believes that the design should not be “allowed to fight with the art.” At the Chambers, David Rockwell, restricted by a mere 5o-foot-wide lot, rejected the idea of designing a miniature version of a grand luxury hotel in favor of cre ating “a bigger version of a residence.” His concept was an artist’s loft, with walnut floors, plaster walls, concrete ceilings, exposed pipes, and glass drafting tables that sit on wood sawhorses. “The art program came out of wanting to encourage a unique attitude for the hotel that would vary floor to floor,” Rockwell says, adding that the artists had “a lot of leeway about whether their piece would be on the wall, or whether it would be the wall.”
For Rockwell, the use of art is not so much about branding a project as about the collaborative exploration of new frontiers in architecture. “It is more interesting to think about art as a means to be provocative and make people look at things in a fresh new way,” he says. “Chambers takes art out of a world that has to have it with a capital A and puts it in deliberately atypical locations.”
Other architects and developers appear to share his view. Ground zero for experiments that marry hospitality and art is Las Vegas, home of the theme hotel. Steven Wynn’s hugely successful gallery at the Bellagio, opened in 1998, was just the beginning. By next year, the Guggenheim–by far the greatest risk-taker among American art museums–will open two galleries at the Venetian Resort and Hotel, in alliance with the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg. Rem Koolhaas has envisioned Cor-Ten steel walls for the smaller of the two spaces. Masterpieces by the likes of Monet and Kandinsky will “hang” on the steel walls with the help of magnets.
How far other museums might go in the direction of alliances with hotels is open to question. If the Guggenheim succeeds (and reaps the expected revenues), the temptation may prove irresistible. The idea of branding through art and design can also broaden to new contexts. Drukier, who is currently building a pair of condominiums designed by Richard Meier, believes “you can have any part of real estate branded.” There has been talk of designer Giorgio Armani building a hotel. And if there can be branded condominiums, the time may be ripe for branded office towers–“art offices.”
In fact, they may already be here. As Dirk Gadeke’s chauffeured limousine cruises through Berlin, the developer reaches into his vest pocket and pulls out a prepaid phone card. Emblazoned beneath the microchip are the logos of his three brands: “art’otel ,” “art’appart,” and “art’bureau.”
“If I could have done this 50 years ago with Picasso, that would have been good,” Gadeke muses. “But now I have all the best.”
Andras Szanto, deputy director of the Notional Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, writes frequently on visual art, architecture, and contemporary culture.
“I’ll Pick Door Number…”
It’s not cheap to sleep among museum-quality canvases, but budget travelers to Berlin can opt for the Kunstlerheim Luise. Situated in the shadow of the Reichstag, abutting the rail tracks (earplugs provided), this modest hostel is the scrappy artists’ cooperative of the art-hotel scene. Its owners, Rene Studter and Mike Buller, put in long shifts at the front desk and have not applied for a star rating. They renovated the derelict 1825 apartment house in 1998-99 with architect Rainer Seiferth, inviting artists to transform all 32 rooms into full-blown art environments on a budget of about $500 each. Artists get a percentage of the profits when a guest chooses their room, but installations change every three years. Among the more imaginative rooms is in which a giant oak bed memorializes the wonderful dreams its creator, Dieter Mammel, had in his grandmother’s bed as a child. Also worth checking out: with furniture made of aircraft parts; the dog room, with an op-art mural of dog bowls; and a suite with an oil painting titled Germany under Construction that is reserved, according to the concierge, “for people who want to commit suicide.”