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Design was just one ingredient, albeit an essential one, for creating a boutique hotel both then and now.

On March 20, we published a 60,000-word account of the early days and evolution of the boutique hotel industry in the United States, the Complete Oral History of Boutique Hotels.  

The story featured interviews with over two dozen key players, and took us from fledgling brands in San Francisco and New York in the early 1980s to the biggest brands in hospitality in the modern era. We’ll be running a series of related stories over the coming weeks.

In compiling the story, one major defining thread among all the boutique hotel companies we profiled was design. Design became the signature calling card for these new hotels, the primary way for these properties to set themselves apart from the big-box, no-frills, and standard hotels of the day.

What follows are excerpts from the Complete Oral History of Boutique Hotels that demonstrate what kind of design influence boutique hotels had on the hospitality industry as a whole.

Design Distinguishes the Earliest Boutique Hotels from the Rest

Claus Sendlinger, founder of Design Hotels: When we started in the late ’80s, if you would have told anyone about “design hotels,” no one would have understood what you were talking about. …My passion was always parallel to what [Philippe] Starck was doing with the design, and nobody was talking about design, and what the media likes to do is to make people understand with photography. So I thought, if we build up the term, “design,” it will become the term for the niche of the industry. And we knew it was a generic term so you could not trademark it, so we said at that time hopefully we will come up with the resources to further define the portfolio and how we curate it.

Steve Pinetti, former sales and marketing team member when Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants opened its first hotel, now senior vice president of inspiration and creativity for Kimpton: That’s a great question [What makes a hotel a boutique hotel?], and I must have answered that question a hundred times every day for the first 10 years. In addition to what I just said [about the service], it was clearly our design. In fact, probably our first 10 or so hotels in San Francisco, we hired residential interior decorators to come in and give each one a unique look and one of our hotels was called the Hotel Vintage Court [it opened in April 1983].

It had a wine country look and feel to it. One of our hotels, the Galleria Park hotel in the financial district, had more of a contemporary look. We would use, maybe, a different designer that might do high-end apartments up in Pacific Heights. Our décor was key.

I mentioned “home away from home” earlier on. Every hotel had a real live burning fireplace. We want a guest to have that home-away-from-home feeling. A live, working fireplace was a great way to do it. The sound of the crackle, the sight of the fire, the smell of the burning wood. We called our lobby a living room.

Niki Leondakis, former president and COO of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants and former CEO hotels and resorts of Two Roads Hospitality, now CEO of Equinox Fitness Clubs: Some of the commonalities between what Bill and Ian did were they were both very design-driven, with a strong focus on interior design, and different designs from the traditional hotels of the time. In that era, in the 1980s, what we saw were a lot of large hotels, massive concrete, glass, marble, brass structures, big soaring atrium lobbies, and that was the trend we were seeing with some of the larger chain hotels in the industry. Both Bill [Kimpton] and Ian [Schrager], in their own way, went opposite the trend and did these smaller boutique hotels and took a strong stance on design.

The design, in Ian’s case, working with Philippe Starck, was provocative and really taking a stance on modern and it was definitely memorable, high-impact design. Bill Kimpton’s approach to design was definitely opposite what was happening in the industry. It was taking a much more residential feel. The hotels felt more residential, they were very comfortable, they had striking designs, but more of a wow I had a really great designer redesign my living room kind of way. Ian’s hotels, you would walk into the hotel and arrive at a scene and feel like you were … It was sort of a velvet ropes type of experience and you were with all the beautiful people and, with his experience and fame from Studio 54, I think that drove a lot of the tone of his boutique hotels.

Bill’s, differently, were driven by the types of hotels … Bill traveled extensively throughout Europe, and he liked to stay at these boutique hotels in Europe, and they were commonplace over there. He wanted to recreate that experience here in the United States because there wasn’t really such a thing. Bed and breakfasts, but they weren’t full-service. These very warm residentially designed hotels that were intimate, had a high degree of service, and a great restaurant with a great chef was more Bill’s approach.

Philippe Starck and David Rockwell’s Influential Work with Ian Schrager’s Morgans Hotel Group

Scott Gerber, CEO of Gerber Group: It was really incredible what they [David Rockwell and Philippe Starck] did, at that time they were still both visionaries, they collaborated together. The things that they came up with and the design that they came up with while it was very simple, it was basically a box with wood walls. Philippe had these basically metal garbage panels that he turned over and those became stools. He had these really cool lighting fixtures that he had designed and David really collaborated as the more local architect to coordinate with Philippe, because Philippe was over in Europe. It was a great experience, it was a very, very simple design that was really incredibly well received.

It was a different kind of thing. The room sizes of this hotel [The Paramount, Schrager’s third boutique hotel] were very, very tiny, but Ian and Philippe were so creative in how they designed the rooms, that it really just worked. I think it was a great alternative; first of all, boutique hotels very often were much smaller but it was really more about the environment. Let’s say you’d never been to New York before. You were going to the Paramount hotel and you’d see, even though your room was small, you didn’t really care because you had this incredible downstairs and you had a great restaurant and that’s what you were going to the hotel for.

Boutique Hotel Design COMES of Age in the 1990s

Glenn Pushelberg, co-founder of Yabu Pushelberg: When the boutique hotels first started showing up, it was all about design, and the more design you put into them, the more people were drawn to them. It didn’t go much deeper than that. Then there came a point where the customer said, “OK, this is way too much.”

So that kind of turned into a much more thoughtful process of design where hotels started thinking of the lobby as a social gathering spot, so there was more thought about who it was you were trying to attract, and the traffic you wanted to create. That was when you started seeing a shift toward thinking about the guest as a pivotal part of the design process.

Sendlinger: [In the early days of Design Hotels in the early ’90s], I was going to the shows and talking to the hoteliers and familiarizing myself with hotel industry worked. I saw that no one was taking design-forward hotels seriously. It was just all these guys in suits and bland hotels. They were not taking design seriously. They never looked at pop culture or youth culture, and everyone told us you will never succeed having a hotel group that was vertical. You know, you need to have five stars and four stars and three stars, and I always said, “Look at the consumer today, they spend $15,000 on a watch and $7,000 on a bag, but they wear T-shirts from H&M’s design division where they work with Stella McCarthy and [Karl] Lagerfeld.”

And it was around the same time when Steve Jobs got back into power at Apple, and when he launched the first iMac. And I was telling everyone that design was going to become such an integral part of every successful brand. You cannot deny it, so it’s just going to happen. Design is going to be more and more important in the creation of hotels. There was no reason to create ugly hotels. When you looked at the Courtyards and Holiday Inns and Hiltons and whatever they were building in the ’80s, it was just like brown boxes with zero appeal, just to grow fast to meet the demand all around the world.

W Hotels’ Approach to Boutique Design

Amar Lalvani, former global head of W Hotels development, now managing partner and CEO at Standard International: I was tangentially involved in the first W. Barry really took a passion for that and handed that out. David Rockwell did the first W which was on 49th and Lexington. He has a great design eye but, you kind of chuckle looking back on it because I think Pottery Barn was the inspiration for that. Having said that, that’s the democratic nature of what I’m talking about.

Barry [Sternlicht, founder of Starwood Hotels & Resorts and W Hotels] would be the first one to admit to that he looked at what Ian Schrager and André Balazs were doing and to bring it into a level of comfort and to a level of democratization. I remember there was a lot of Pottery Barn stuff that was the inspiration. It was softer, more feminine. If you look at the difference between something like The Royalton or The Paramount really which was hard and it was nightclub by and it was a lot of steel. I just remember that room was uncomfortable.

When you look at that first W, which was soft and it was Pottery Barn and it was comfortable beds and it was bright and it was airy. The restaurant was called Heartbeat, so it had a health factor. If you look at that original inspiration of the nightclub aspect that I was talking about and look at what we did with the first W, you could see that it was vastly different.

Having said that, it took design, bar, and restaurant seriously. That seriousness of intent of it being a place and more than a hotel, I think, was the common link between the two.

K.C. Kavanagh, former senior vice president of global communications for Starwood Hotels & Resorts: Barry referred to himself as a frustrated artist. He would literally design bathroom sinks. He designed and sketched out the new entrance of the W Westwood in LA which is now the W West Beverly Hills. Our first W in Los Angeles, he literally sketched the arrival.

He was very much in the weeds and was criticized in the early days for being so in the weeds at the W but he knew, he knew what was being created at the W would have a halo effect for the whole company and would be bigger than just a handful of hotels. Obviously, he was proven right. He thought that design really mattered, something that’s proven to be true so he spent a lot of time with design. That was the fun part of his day to go down to the design studios and hang out with the designers and work with them and go back and forth on color and the comfort of the bed, he spent a ton of time focused on the bed and he wanted to make sure it was the most comfortable bed you could ever imagine.

I remember having so many conversations about armoires, of all things, and the died-in-the-wool hotel operators said, “We must have armoires in every hotel room because they hide the TV’s,” and Barry said, “Why should we hide the TV? That’s ridiculous. No one wants a big clunky armoire in a hotel room.” When was the last time you saw an armoire in a hotel room? The beauty of W was it looked at every hotel convention and just rewrote the book, whether it was the minibar or the way the lobby worked or what kind of restaurant you ran or where you put the bar or the beds.

Bill Walshe, former UK sales manager for Conrad Hotels in early ’90s, now CEO of Viceroy Hotel Group: I think prior to that we hadn’t ever really seen people wanting to take the hotel experience home. There was a very distinct separation that you lived at home and you went to hotels and you stayed there and you were away and then you went back home. I think that one of the things that the boutique hotel movement created that had never been done before was this fusion of the hotel experience with your home experience. For the first time people wanted their homes to look like the hotels they went to stay in. I’m sure that, and it did for people like Kelly Wearstler earlier, that a lot of the hotel designers who were designing boutique hotels also had very successful residential practices because people embraced that aesthetic style of hotel. It was very modern residential. It felt like the condominium you really wanted to live in. I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying I think it created a much closer alignment between people’s experiences in hotels and their experiences at home, or their lifestyles, and crossed over between both.

Andrew J. Fay, president of The Gettys Group: Making the industry focus on the importance of design as a differentiator, using design as a value creator, and a really thoughtful response to increasing the increasing sophistication of consumers is a part of W, and Starwood’s legacy. They were very receptive to design and embracing it, and W was proof of that.

Ron Swidler, principal, branding, The Gettys Group: I remember how controversial it was when the first W hotels stuck the bed in the middle of the room and pierced a hole in the bedroom wall and had painted wall, instead of a wall covering. It was dramatic design, a nightclub and retail design influence on the hotel environment.

Aliya Khan, former W Hotels designer from 2003 to 2006, now VP of global design strategies at Marriott International: When I joined [in 2003], the group at the time, or the group at the inception of the W brand, the very inception, was a group who was previously at Pottery Barn.

I think that the challenge for Barry, at the time, was “OK, I want to create this residential feeling environment that functions like a hotel.”

Knowing that design is almost like a cost of entry experience now, I think the next thing that W tried to do is really to try and hone in on the personality of the consumer, the guest, try and understand the psychographic. What are their passions? What are their interests? What is really new, next and now and compelling in terms of bringing those types of consumers? I think it was definitely a much deeper dive into the personality. That’s where I think it became very apparent that both design and brand philosophy had to marry in a very strong way.

Ace Hotels’ Design: Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

Wade Weigel, co-founder of Ace Hotels: We originally opened with 18 rooms and added 10 later on, on another floor. There weren’t bathrooms in all the rooms, either. We ran out of money. We originally had wanted to take all the risk, but we couldn’t afford to open only but 18.

No [I don’t know if we felt like we had the business chops to open a hotel], but we did. At that point in time, neither Alex [Calderwood, the late co-founder of Ace Hotels] nor I had houses, cars, kids, any really true expenses. I’m not even sure at that point in time if … I had three or four stores open at Rudy’s before I even quit my job waiting tables. I would do both. I’d work in the daytime at Rudy’s and I would go and wait tables at night to make that extra money so I could build a new store. It was an obsession.

… Next thing you know we have … We didn’t really think that we created some masterpiece or whatever, but all of a sudden, architects were coming from out of state. All the design school kids were coming. Because they were writing like it was something new. We just knew we were catering to ourselves and we wanted something simple. We just wanted an interesting place that we would want to crash, and I say crash.

I’m not the person that sees it [the hotel’s style] as this romantic, really thought-out thing. It’s something that happened and it’s something that reflects what our likes were. Alex [Calderwood] and I are not fluffy guys and we like simplistic. We love vintage. That’s what was a natural thing. It wasn’t something that we tried to go out and be like, “Oh we want to go out and be local and we’re going to shop at these local stores.”

It’s what was available, it was what was there, it’s what we loved. It wasn’t something that was thought-out like, “OK if we go there, we’re only going to shop at local stores.” That wasn’t the case. It was the case of that’s what was there. That’s what we did. You know what I mean? It wasn’t this thought-out thing like, “This is who we are. We only shop local. We only deal with this.” But we believed in a community and what we would try to do is say, “OK, this is the building we found.”

Most of the buildings what came to us were not looked for. They were something that somebody says, “Hey, I have this building over here. Would you guys be interested in this?” Usually some place that was cheap, a dive, and nobody else wanted. We would look at it and say like, “OK, this is really fun. This is really cool.” We would figure out how we could be a part of that community and bring our people, or like-minded people like ourselves, would want to go. That was the difference between us.

Great Design Becomes the Price of Admission for Hotels

Leondakis: We were paying attention to all of those people, and I think there was a period in the ’90s and the early parts of 2000 where design was … It just became all about design. Everybody started to compete on design, and then the big box players were hiring the same designers that the boutique players were using, and now you start to see the big box hotels with high style and design. That really forced everybody … It certainly forced us to up our game. We realized rather quickly that you can’t compete on design alone, and I maintain that point of view today. Today, great design is the price of admission, you gotta have it in our sector, the public has come to expect it, they want to be wowed, but that’s not enough because it’s everywhere. Design has been so commoditized. The service execution, the programming of the hotel, the experience delivery really defines you, not design.

Walshe: I think the danger for hotels is this: On the back of this boutique hotel phenomenon that emerged, it was about creating special vibe. It was about creating interactive service. It was about very highly personalized recognition. People misunderstood that and some people thought it was all about quirky design. People who designed hotels for the sake of design rather than designing hotels for the sake of guest experience. I think there were casualties along the way, but the people who got it right curiously are the ones who we’ve been talking about and they’re still around today.

For even more stories about the creation of the boutique hotels movement in the U.S., check out Skift’s Complete Oral History of Boutique Hotels.

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Tags: ace hotel, boutique hotels, design, Design Hotels, hotel design, kimpton, morgans hotel group, w hotels

Photo credit: The Dwell Hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn. Design played an influential role in distinguishing the earliest boutique hotels, and that tradition continues today. Design Hotels

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