In the luxury hotel world, we see the term "design hotel" a lot. But what does "design hotel" really mean? And what can you expect a design hotel to be like?
The Basic Definition: A design hotel is notable for its design. Whether its the architecture, interior design and/or furnishings. In other words, a design hotel's message and primary appeal is its appearance. It's a treat for the eyes and makes you think "so cool" or just "wow." This article will explain all the key features of a design hotel so you know what to expect when booking a stay at one.
Note to readers: this article defines what is meant by the descriptive term "design hotel." It is not intended to report on or promote the hospitality association called Design Hotels™, a confederation of design hotels such as are described in this slideshow.
The usual aesthetic of a design hotel is contemporary and modern, inside and out: a new hotel with contemporary interiors. You know the look: uncluttered, often with eclectic references to 20th-century decorative styles such as Atomic, Mod, or shaggy Seventies. Sometimes, a design hotel's modern look has a distinct organic edge, with raw natural materials. And sometimes, the design reflects its setting, especially Asia (as at Keemala in Phuket, Thailand, shown).
Usually, a design hotel is a new hotel with interiors to match. Examples: the celebrated Burj Al Arab in Dubai, where every guest gets a duplex suite with a 24-karat gold iPad.
A design hotel's calling card is its one-off, unique, one-of-a-kind appearance. If its look can be found elsewhere, it's not a true design hotel. (So if the hotel is part of a brand whose overall corporate design, however chic, makes the hotel nearly identical to other properties in the brand: it's not a design hotel.)
But this does not mean that a design hotel cannot be part of a brand. Some luxury hotel brands are composed of boutique hotels that are all one-off in design. An example: Singapore-based, super-high-end Amanresorts, all exquisite, all different. Another example: Six Senses Resorts.
Makes a Style Statement
A notable exterior or interior is insufficient to be considered a design hotel. A luxury hotel in a glamorous tower, but with standard tan-and-silver lobby and rooms: not a design hotel. Or a hotel with expensively, trendily renovated rooms, but its building is a dated, generic monstrosity: not a design hotel.
A true design hotel conveys high style both inside and out: you gotta have both. Examples of inside-out design hotels: Radisson Blu Hotel Aqua Chicago, a skyscraper that seems to dance, and became an instant landmark when it opened in 2011; inside it conveys Chicago Steampunk chic. The St. Regis Mexico City: its notable tower was designed by Argentinean starchitect César Pelli, its ultra-chic interiors by Toronto's Yabu Pushelberg team.
A design hotel is sometimes the personal vision of a "starchitect" or famed interior designer. The hotel will be an unmistakable expression in his or her style. Some examples: Morpheus hotel in Macau, the effusive work of the late Zaha Hadid (shown above); Ayre Hotel Oviedo in Asturias, Spain, by Santiago Calatrava, who designed the dazzling Oculus station on the site of the World Trade Center; and Park Hyatt Tokyo (of Lost in Translation fame), by Pritzker Prize-winner Kenzo Tange.
Sometimes the design hotel project is the work of a designer who is sought-after for hotel interiors, and whose quicksilver style changes to suit the project. Example: David Rockwell and his disparate designs for hotels such as The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and Andaz Wailea Maui; Yabu Pushelberg for Las Alcobas.
Sometimes a design hotel's style DNA was bequeathed not by an architect but by a visionary interior designer. Example: Viceroy Hotels and Resorts' glam, modern "Hollywood Regency" style, the work of designer Kelly Wearstler.
Not Necessarily a Luxury Hotel
Luxury hotels are about poshness, comfort, and pleasing design. Nevertheless, few luxury hotels, especially those with a strong brand identity, seek to make a vigorous unique design statement. (Find out more about what constitutes a luxury hotel -- a common phrase but not so common an achievement!)
And on the other hand, many design hotels are short on creature comforts but make resounding design statements. Some examples: rugged eco-resorts, treehouses, caves, igloos, geodesic-domed tents; hotels set in former monasteries; and Ace Hotels, intended to recall Salvation Army room, and Sweden's Treehotel above the Arctic Circle, with accommodations such as a UFO and a mirrored cube. See more brilliantly designed good-value hotels.
Style Icon From Another Era
Some design hotels are not new. These are hotels built in past centuries and stylishly updated. Very often, this subspecies of design hotel was originally built in the high-style 20th century, either in the Art Deco or "midcentury modern" era.
Examples: Fairmont Peace Hotel in Shanghai: an Art Deco treasure on The Bund, with seductive 1920s interiors throughout. La Concha Resort in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a 1959 gem (shown). The Funky Fifties Parker Palm Springs, also built in 1959 at the height of "atomic design" as the first Holiday Inn, and was then an estate owned by Gene Autry and then Merv Griffin: refreshed by ceramist/designer Jonathan Adler, it's now a design hotel; The Langham, Chicago, a high-design hotel within a Chicago modernist icon: a 1973 tower by Mies van der Rohe.
Some design hotels are set in buildings from the 1800s or before. Their contrast of historic bones and cutting-edge style is exciting to behold. Some examples: MGallery Lagare Hotel Venezia: on the glass-making island of Murano, it shares walls with a massive kiln that was used in Renaissance and Baroque times. The Dolder Grand in Zurich, Switzerland, built in the 1880s and updated, with a futuristic new wing, by Sir Norman Foster. Andaz Liverpool Street Hotel in London: set in a graciously proportioned late-1800s bank structure with glorious restaurant spaces. Similarly, Corinthia Hotel London: a Victorian jewel reborn as the up-to-the-moment hotel where Beyoncé and Jay-Z stay.
Nowadays, several hotel brands spotlight the design aspect of their properties with this fact: they are hotels owned by fashion design houses (and sometimes clubs and restaurants).
The list is growing. Armani Hotel, in Milan and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the word's tallest building. Bulgari Hotels in Milan, London, Bali, China, and Dubai. Nobu Hotel, at Caesars Palace in Vegas and Miami Beach. Palazzo Versace in Australia and Dubai. Buddha-Bar Hotels, a nightclub brand, in Paris, Budapest, Yerevan (Armenia) and in Prague.
An extension of the designer-branded hotel trend is individual hotel rooms "curated" (designed) by fashion designers. A few designer suites out there: Diane von Furstenberg for Claridge's in London; Karl Lagerfeld for Schosshotel im Grunewald in Berlin; Dior, Tiffany, and Bentley's designer suites in the St. Regis New York; Betsey Johnson's "Eloise" suite at The Plaza Hotel New York; The Schiaparelli Suite at The May Fair Hotel in London, done in the midcentury couturier's trademark "shocking pink."