Charm offensive – Stephen Bayley

10th January 2012 (Last Updated January 10th, 2012 10:13)

Design critic and cultural commentator Stephen Bayley – memorably dubbed ‘the second most intelligent man in Britain’ – has written more than ten books, countless articles and co-founded the London Design Museum. Tom Wolfe said of him: “I don’t know anyone with more interesting ideas on style, design and popular taste.”

Charm offensive – Stephen Bayley

"The first thing I do when entering a hotel room is to pick up all the bits and pieces – the folders, the leaflets, the folded bits of card, the chocolates they leave on the pillow – and hide them in the bottom drawer. I don’t know who all this wasteful excess is meant to impress. It certainly doesn’t impress me.

Very grand hotels rarely stop to think what customers actually want in a room. Sometimes, the suite can be so big
you’ll put something down and be unable to find it. That’s not convenient or luxurious. I’m constantly trying to reify what we mean by luxury, and tend to think it’s not the presence of lots of fuss so much as its absence.

The most expensive hotel room I’ve ever occupied was also one of the most hideous. It was in the New York Palace Hotel. I had a triplex suite there for a few days, at $15,000 a night – luckily, I wasn’t paying. It had three floors, six bathrooms and a grand piano, and I lounged around there, in apathetic melancholy, longing to be in the Hotel de Provence in Cannes, which is uncomplicated and charming.

Charm, to me, is unmeasurable – something that happens by accident rather than by design. It’s not about power and prestige and fineness. I find it the most attractive commodity that either a person or an institution can possess.

When I was a child, my parents travelled around England a lot, and I often tagged along with them, using room service menus as bedtime reading. From a very early age I felt more comfortable in these environments than I did at home. Hotels offer concepts of refuge, and a contrived sort of domesticity, but also a kind of emotional neutrality. They give you the opportunity to play a role, or equally, to be completely anonymous.

Then there’s always the ghost of the suggestion of romantic possibility – the stranger you see across the room; all those hilarious prospects of walking into the wrong room, or someone walking into your room. These things never happen, or at least, never to me, but they’re part of why we find hotels alluring.

The really great hotels are microcosms of the cities they exist in. Las Casas de la Juderia in Seville is a fabulous warren of strange rooms, and patios and sprinkling fountains. It actually is Seville in miniature.

Conversely, I loathe the idea of design hotels. I’d rather sleep on the street. Design is the ordinary thing done extraordinarily well, whereas design hotels are usually extraordinary things done extraordinarily badly.

"The most expensive hotel room I’ve ever occupied was also one of the most hideous."

Without question, the worst place I’ve ever visited was in Paris, a so-called Design Hotel and probably the vilest in the world. It’s got a white vinyl studded banquette, and an artificial fire in the lobby. There’s a bath so punishingly uncomfortable that nobody will use it, a control panel so you can adjust the colour of the lighting, and a sex toy in the bathroom. It’s repellent.

And every other ‘design hotel’ I’ve seen is exactly that – just shrieking, embarrassing nonsense. The Royalton in New York used to be a favourite hotel of mine. It had this fabulously faded Damon Runyon feel about it, a huge liveried flunky from the Deep South on the door, and a Norman Rockwell-style diner.

But then Philippe Starck moved in and ‘designed’ it to within an inch of its life, to the point at which you weren’t allowed to adjust the layout of the chairs in the lobby when you were sitting on them. I mean, somebody would move in from behind the check-in desk to say: "I’m sorry, you can’t move that chair sir – the designer wanted it to be there". Awful.

Coco Chanel said that fashion is what goes out of fashion and goodness me, design hotels are out of fashion. Certainly if I’ve got anything to do with it, we’ve seen the end of this self-conscious faux-modernity; this baffling need to strike irrelevant poses. I have seen the future, and it’s small, individual and charming.

The things you enjoy in a hotel, or a restaurant, are things like generosity, personality; the opportunity to be cosseted or the opportunity to be ignored. And most of all you want the environment to be an honest expression of the spirit of the place. You can always detect quality, even if it’s impossible to define it.

Interview by Abi Millar


Hotel Management International
This article was first published in our sister publication Hotel Management International.