Innovation & Design

Welcome to the Art Hotel


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"It's over for design hotels," says Ian Schrager, the man who invented them. "What once was the exception is now the general rule. It doesn't interest me anymore. I have taken it as far as it can go. This for me is a new beginning. I’m trying to change the game again."

By “this” Schrager means "art," at least as it's embodied in the 185-room Gramercy Park Hotel, set to open this August in New York City. Schrager, who famously worked with designer Philippe Starck on New York's Royalton and others, is collaborating on the property with artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel to create a "bohemian" spirit -- "but a bohemian with money," Schrager qualifies, describing their vision of “organized chaos,” with canvases propped up against the wall and a sense of "individuality and spontaneity."

Rather than just slapping art up on the walls of the lobby and guest rooms (although they'll do that too), its spirit will permeate the place. Picture flowers plopped into water pitchers set before a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

AROUND THE GLOBE. If Schrager's track record is any indication, the "art hotel" is about to become a big deal. And yet this time around, the man who co-founded Studio 54 isn't the first at the party (even if he is arriving in style).

Hotels have always had artwork, but today the concept is being stretched to new limits, as boutique hotels replace hospitality-as-theater with hospitality-as-installation-art. Around the globe, hoteliers are working with artists (if they're not already artists themselves) to create environments with a sense of style and authenticity -- in explicit retort to the boutique hotel formula, with its contemporary furniture and dimmed hallways.

In part it's a backlash against the democratization of design: Now that there are "W" hotels by the dozen, hoteliers are seeking new ways of standing out. And yet, the hoteliers say, it also reveals the tastes of a generation that has come of age in a flat world.

"I think people are tired of having a pre-described experience handed to them, and they're tired of being disconnected from the life of the city they're visiting," says Christina Zeidler, developer and proprietor of the Gladstone in Toronto, a Victorian-era railway hotel that reopened last year.

TEEN QUEEN. Drawing on her roots in Toronto's lively art scene, Zeidler commissioned different artists to design each of the rooms, encouraging individuality and creativity, while keeping them in check with a prepared booklet that dictated the rooms' functional needs. The results include the Canadiana Room ("a brief, whimsical fantasy of Canada"), Teen Queen (pink walls plastered with teen idol posters), and Faux Naturelle ("a woodsy retreat where lesbian separatist commune meets Storybook Gardens"). Flat-screen TVs and Internet access round out the amenities.

The Gladstone's second floor has artist studios for rent, the top floor boasts a "rock star" suite for $400 (U.S.) a night, and there's nightly live music at the bar, which maintains a crowd of regulars from the hotel's fleabag days. For Zeidler, the combination brings the place alive. "It's not just about art here, it's about community and neighborhood," she says.

And while the hotel is for-profit -- and often sold-out -- Zeidler terms herself a "social entrepreneur." As she explains: "The belief in the individual, and the belief in making things, is still a revolutionary idea, and I think that as a business model it's becoming really successful."

UPSIDE DOWN. That has been the case for Lars Stroschen, a Berlin artist and musician who has become something of a reluctant hotelier. Seeking to raise money for his music (a combination of electronica and vintage instruments) in the mid-1990s, he decorated a couple of rooms in his "very large" apartment and began to let them out.

When the idea took off, he set to work creating the 30 unique rooms of Propeller Island City Lodge, including the Mirror Room (a life-size kaleidoscope), the Upside Down room (just as it sounds; there's a single mattress on the floor), and the Freedom Room (a prison cell with a hole knocked through the wall to allow for escape). "It's like a theater," says Stroschen, who resists being limited by the "art" moniker.

"The term 'art' is very difficult today," he says. "All people think of is money. And of course I have to think of money too, but that wasn't the reason I did it. I like to experiment."

Howard Jacobs, Chief Operating Officer of Portland (Ore.)-based Aspen Hotel Management, employed art for more conventional reasons. For the Hotel Max in Seattle, which opened last year, he asked designer Denise Corso and curator Tessa Pappas to transform the down-at-the-heels Vance Hotel into a showcase for local artists.

SNACKS AND DRINKS. Each guest floor hallway has been given over to a single photographer, whose work plasters the hotel room doors (the fifth floor features Charles Peterson images of Seattle's grunge rock heyday); every guest room has an original painting, prominently labeled with the artist's name. In addition to snacks and drinks, the mini-bar sells "Maximalism," a published catalog of the hotel's artwork, with contact information for each artist.

The cultural patronage is deliberate. "Too often there are some untapped resources in the local community that are overlooked when properties are created, particularly branded properties," Jacobs says. "A brand may bring consistency, but it doesn’t bring uniqueness."

In Chicago, The James begs to differ. As the first property in a new brand launched by Danny Errico (co-founder of Equinox gyms), Brad Wilson (a former manager of "W" Hotels) and Steve Hanson (the New York restaurateur behind Blue Water Grill, Ciana, and Ruby Foo's), The James uses art as "part of its DNA," Wilson says. "One of our brand commitments is the integral experience of art, and partnering with a genuine part of the local art community."

VIDEO VIEW. For its opening last month the hotel sponsored MixArt, a public art exhibition and charity auction organized by curators from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and other local institutions. Gene Pressman, former Chief Executive Officer and creative director of Barneys New York, the high-fashion department store, has overseen the hotel's permanent art program, which includes a video projection in the lobby courtyard.

But you won't find any fun-house rooms at the James. "The James brand is about balance," says Wilson. "Your room is more than just an art gallery -- it's where you live, it's where you work, it's where you sleep. We worked hard to find a balance between the stimulus of the art and the comfort of the furniture."

For Jennifer Rubell, the Miami hotelier and lifestyle writer who is also actively involved in the Rubell Family Collection, a 45,000-sq.-ft. public contemporary-art institution, that's exactly why art and hotels can only mix so much. "Anytime you're worried about how art affects a brand or a place, you're probably leaning toward less interesting art," she says. "Museums don't think the customer is always right."

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