If hotels used to mimic wealthy homes, now the ideal home looks like a hotel. Matthew Sweet reports—and starts by getting a hotelier round to inspect his place
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012
WE'RE ACCUSTOMED TO glamour in London SE26: Kelly Brook and Jason Statham used to live above the dentist. But when Anouska Hempel's heels hit the cracked cement of the parking space outside my flat, it's hard not to think of those Picture Post photographs of royalty visiting bombed-out families during the second world war. Her mission in my modest tract of suburbia is, however, about more than offering sympathy. Hempel—the woman who invented the boutique hotel before it bore any such proprietary name—has come to give me information for which, judging by the spreads in interiors magazines and anxious postings on online DIY forums, half the property-owners in the Western world seem desperate: how to give an ordinary home the look and the vibe of a five-star, £750-a-night hotel suite. To Hempelise, in this case, a modest conversion flat formed from the middle slice of a three-storey Victorian semi.
"You could do it," she says, casting an eye around my kitchen. "Anyone could do it. Absolutely no reason why not. But there has to be continuity between the rooms. A single idea must be followed through." She looks out wistfully over the fire escape. "And you'd have to buy the house next door, of course." That's a joke. I think.
A word on etiquette: strictly speaking, Anouska is no longer a Hempel—that identity was forged for her former career, in which she was the drop-dead gorgeous carrier of Blofeld's omega virus in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", a blood-sucking temptress in "Scars of Dracula" and an unlikely source of glamour at W.C. Boggs's toilet factory in "Carry On at Your Convenience". Since 1980 she has been Anouska, Lady Weinberg—completing a renovation project that began half a century ago, when she left home in New South Wales and hopped on a boat to England. In 1978, when the film business was in abeyance and most available work was in sexploitation flicks, she ditched acting and founded Blakes, a discreet, romantic, stylish hideaway in South Kensington, where some of the most significant adultery of our time has taken place. To this day, clients sometimes ask her to reproduce the rooms in which they began their affairs.
For the past two decades, the Hempel name has been redolent of blinding-white minimalism, thanks to the 44-room hotel in Bayswater that she founded in 1996 and christened in her own honour. Sixteen years on, however, her enthusiasm for this aesthetic has waned. It's been bastardised, she says, by her imitators. "They know who they are," she notes, ominously. These days, Lady Weinberg is all about the Pre-Raphaelites—whom she seems to be channelling as she plans the reorganisation of my home.
"The first thing you need to do is get rid of this." She taps my scuffed kitchen table. "Then you need a really big solid round table with a light overhead that will pull down. You can do all your baking on it, you could work at it, eat around it with your family." Her eyes flick around the room. "You can keep your purple floor if you like, and you can keep your old breadbin, but you'll have to get rid of all that melamine."
My IKEA kitchen units, it seems, will not survive Year Zero. "You and your wife could put your bed here," she says, gesturing towards the two-foot-deep bay window in the kitchen, "and you'd get all that lovely sun in the morning." We proceed to the living room, where I fail to misdirect her gaze from the dirty great slash the kids made in the sofa. Her thoughts are all of sledgehammers. "Knock down these walls," she declares. "Open up the space and divide it with wooden screens." I ask what kind of wood. She peers at me over her shades. "What a ridiculous question!"
What about my books? "Pile them sideways up from the floor. You don't need your bookcases. Who needs bookcases?" It's a wonderful vision, but I can't help feeling it might be more practical for a hotel than a family home. "If you don't want to hear your little girls giggling," she advises, "then just put them behind one of the higher screens. Don't be ruled by fear."
Desire, though, is as powerful as fear. The boutique hotel now seems to be the principal template for domestic interior design—the ideal that haunts the dreams of today's refurbishers and renovators as powerfully as the ocean liner and the Edwardian country cottage haunted the 1930s and 1970s. Flip open an interiors glossy and you'll be exhorted to clad your walls with mirrors embossed with pointillist dots, as at the W in San Francisco; personalise your living room with a heraldic arrangement of monkeys, cutlery and tennis racquets, like the SLS, Beverley Hills; light your hallway with bulbs like the ones screwed into the ceilings of the Chateau Marmont, which contain sky-blue filaments twisted into the shape of Pan, god of the forests. "A pendant [light] either side of the bed," coos the lifestyle editor of the Mail on Sunday supplement You, "will give your room a smart hotel feel and save on space." Channel 4's Grand Designs magazine offers its followers 22 ways "to give your bedroom a touch of smart hotel chic"—including tips such as "overdress the bed to create a look that's the equivalent of a smart city suit". Excellent if you fancy going to sleep on top of Sir Mervyn King, otherwise utterly bizarre.
Above the beds and sofas choked by clusters of gigantic cushions, the upholstered headboards that butt against the ceiling, the shelves ranged with "statement accessories", there is one hotel-design feature leading the invasion of domestic space: the rolltop bath bolted to the bedroom floor. A decade ago it would have been considered a preposterous category error—before 2008 it constituted a breach of British planning regulations—but now, despite the wet towels on the carpet, the slick of shampoo spreading from the up-ended bottle, and the clear and present danger of accidental electrocution, bathing in the bedroom has become a shibboleth of contemporary interior design.
Why has it happened? Here's one theory. In her lectures, the cognitive scientist Dr Susan Blackmore shows her students photographs of hotel bathrooms, with special emphasis on the roll of toilet paper fixed to the wall. Blackmore is one of the world's foremost authorities on memetics—the study of how ideas reproduce and circulate through culture. The hotel practice of folding the end of the loo roll into a V-shape (or some more elaborate work of origami) is, for her, a textbook example of a "useless meme"—an idea that has no pressing reason to exist, and yet has reproduced promiscuously. Nobody knows how it started, and nobody can stop its spread.
"Hoteliers try to get ideas from the domestic market and the domestic market tries to get ideas from hoteliers," asserts Kit Kemp, co-owner and designer of the Firmdale hotel group, which has the Soho, the Haymarket and the Crosby Street hotels under its umbrella. For her, a good hotel room should be like a dream of home; as individual as any domestic bedroom, but with all the disappointing and chaotic elements carefully excised. "And with the beauty of someone coming along and taking away all your dirty washing and dry cleaning and ironing," she reflects. "The hotel room now is often more bespoke than the domestic interior. That's why people aspire to get a bedroom like one in a special hotel they've visited."
It's worth pausing, though, to consider the oddness of this impulse. The hotel room is an amnesiac space. We would be troubled if it bore any sign of a previous occupant, particularly as many of us go to hotels in order to do things we would not do at home. We expect a hotel room to be cleaned as thoroughly as if a corpse had just been hauled from the bed. (In some cases, this will actually have happened.) The domestic interior embodies the opposite idea: it is a repository of memories. The story of its inhabitants ought to be there in the photos on the mantelpiece, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves. If hotel rooms were people, they would be smiling lobotomy patients or plausible psychopaths.
The grand hotels of Victorian and Edwardian London—the Ritz, the Savoy, Claridge's—mimicked the living spaces of the clients they sought to attract. Mahogany, gold leaf, mirrors, stucco, plaster cherubs, liveried staff: the appurtenances of the chateau and the country house were transplanted to the West End in order to persuade the rich to do something to which they were unaccustomed: eat, drink, dance and smoke outside the home. By the 1930s, transatlantic modernism provided a new navigational star: the Dorchester, that great concrete behemoth on Park Lane, was, according to a Canadian diplomat, "a luxury liner on which the remnants of London society have embarked in the midst of a storm… a fortress propped up by money bags." As institutions, the Dorchester and its kin were more public than private. They offered their guests a form of luxurious collective-living that was as orchestrated, in its own way, as the rhythms of the Butlin's holiday camp. They were also inimitable: transplant the Savoy's American Bar into the home and you've got a prime exemplar of bad taste—the cocktail bar in the corner of the 1970s lounge.
THE BOUTIQUE HOTEL changed that equation. It didn't look like the Queen Mary or Chatsworth—it found its premises inside the shells of Georgian or Victorian townhouses of the sort that developers might otherwise have converted into flats. And it appropriated the vernacular of small-scale domestic design, giving its guests a sexed-up, spotless, intensified version of the home. It has effected a subtle revision of the relationship between the rooms in which people spend their lives and the rooms in which they spend their wedding anniversaries. The message of those magazine spreads is this: make your house look like somewhere nobody lives.
In Alan Hollinghurst's Booker prize-winner "The Line of Beauty" (2004), there's a moment when the central character, who's been living with an obscenely wealthy boyfriend, is told an earlier lover has died. "In the remorseless glare of the news," the narrator records, "the flat looked even more tawdry and pretentious. He was puzzled to think he had spent so much time in it so happily… The pelmets and mirrors, the spotlights and blinds, seemed rich in criticism. It was what you did if you had millions but no particular taste: you made your private space like a swanky hotel; just as such hotels flattered their customers by being vulgar simulacra of lavish private homes." It's a portrait of a man estranged from the idea of home, but unsure how to find his way back.
"It's becoming harder and harder to surprise and delight people," Kit Kemp says. "You have to be increasingly inventive." It's a kind of design arms race. Hotels conjure exquisite spaces and adorn them with delicious objects. Visitors then reproduce these spaces in their own homes—with the help of high-street stores who read the design mags as diligently as their customers. The hotels respond by refurbishing with even more curated environments—or quietly accept the loss of their fashionable status.
CONCEALED WITHIN A Queen Anne townhouse next door to the east London branch of PC World is an establishment that may prove to be the final mutational form of the boutique hotel. Rap the lion-headed knocker on the front door of 109 Mile End Road, and you will be met, in the gloom of the hallway, by David Carter. Interior designer, Beardsleyan dandy, elegant sliver of fin-de-siècle aestheticism transplanted into 21st-century Spitalfields, Carter is also the proprietor of 40 Winks, possibly the smallest and most perfectly formed hotel in Europe.
It has only two bedrooms. One is a cosy boudoir with pink cushions on the chairs and a stone lid from a Middle Eastern well hulking in the fireplace. The other is a white room like the transdimensional space in which Keir Dullea awakes in the final reel of "2001: A Space Odyssey", made less unheimlich by the copy of "Mick the Disobedient Puppy" lying on the bedside table. Guests are encouraged to walk around in their nighties, to fall in love, to argue, to stay up all night. Sometimes, in the opium-den atmosphere of the drawing room, there is shadow-puppetry or a reading from Angela Carter. If the hero of Huysmans' "A Rebours" checked in with his jewel-studded tortoise, neither would look out of place splashing about in David Carter's gilded bathtub. To reproduce this world at home would require an effort of such intensity, it might prove fatal. But it would be quite a way to die.
In the kitchen, with its trompe-l'oeil architraves and Pinocchio puppets standing sentinel on the mantelpiece, Carter marks out his territory. "If people treat themselves to a weekend in some swanky hotel, they may be experiencing a kind of opulence that's not part of their everyday lives," he observes. "What they find there in terms of king-size beds, 600-thread-count sheets and fluffy towels becomes a template for what they would like at home. I don't deal with that. The people I deal with are not aspirational. They're not easily impressed, they're not seduced by silly little gizmos. I wouldn't work for a client who asked me to pop into Blakes and reproduce a room."
His ultimate aim is to found a hotel at which only a handful of people could afford to stay. "It will be amazingly expensive," he trills. "It'll cost millions. Millions and millions and millions. It will be the most mind-blowing trip anyone could have in a lifetime. But I'm not going to buy a chateau or a schloss." He taps his temple. "It's all up here." And that's a place where none of us could follow.
Matthew Sweet presents "Night Waves" on BBC Radio 3. He is the author of "The West End Front: the Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels"
Illustrations Bill Butcher
Photograph: The hotelier Anouska Hempel advises Matthew Sweet in his south London kitchen (Victoria Birkinshaw)