New Hotel for Global Nomads

Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York, USA

Hotels have sinful aspirations: the lure of room service, cable TV, a big bed and a fuzzy dressing gown are hard to improve on, but add to them spa services, designer sheets and a funky lobby bar and the hotel becomes a site promising extravagance and romance, enveloped in an alcoholic haze. An eccentric, enthusiastic exploration of hotels as a cultural and artistic phenomenon, 'New Hotels for Global Nomads', curated by Donald Albrecht, asks us to look beyond mere luxury and imagine the hotel as part of a larger social vision, or as a pivotal urban expanse that suffuses uses of space with immediate issues of commerce, privacy, entertainment and transience.

Presumably conceived before terror alerts and the current global recession, the show offers a careful dose of nostalgia for the building boom before 11 September, 2001 examining some of the now famed hotels that came to fruition in the late 1990s, including Los Angeles' Standard Hotel, the W Hotel chain and the Philippe Starck-designed Sanderson and St. Martin's Lane in London. There are also a number of quirky, improbable architectural projects spread throughout the exhibition that are theoretically interesting but visually boring, all tackling the same issue of compressed space through stacking, from Acconci Studio's Japanese Car Hotel (1997), a series of stacked and moveable beds housed in the body of a car, to Carl de Smet's Living Units in Motion (2002), a series of portable hotel units, to Joel Sanders' 24/7 Hotel Room (2002), which uses the hotel room as a site of units, merging furniture and architecture through a model on a flat-screen television.

Despite the ambitious use of materials and range of projects, the cutting-edge architecture is no match for the included historical objects and humble ephemera, grand in their straightforward objecthood. Sometimes the drawing of a chair-turned-hot tub cannot compete with the simplicity and clarity of a well-made chair. Indeed, some of the best works are the most modest, such as a collection of 1930s Art Deco matchbooks from London's Savoy Hotel, a set of Frank Lloyd Wright plates designed for Tokyo's Imperial Hotel or a Louis Vuitton collapsible bed-in-a-trunk from 1879, a version of which was used by French explorers in the Congo. It is also a pleasure to see straightforward photographic work in this context, including Sophie Calle's classic series 'The Hotel' (1983), which meticulously documents the contents of 12 guestrooms where Calle worked as a maid, and two little-known photographs by Diane Arbus, both taken in hotel rooms in the early 1960s: one of the author of Valley of the Dolls (1966), Jacqueline Susann, and the other of a charismatic, cad-like Marcello Mastroianni sprawled on his bed. Both artists manipulate their subjects to attain a strange and startling intimacy that does not occur even in the most sensitive of all the sculptural projects, a work by Toland Grinnell, titled Private Dancer (2002), an Andrea Zittel-but-better creation that nods to strip-club culture through a smart, self-contained black lacquer unit outfitted with champagne, condoms, a dressing lounge and a lit stage.

Perhaps because the Cooper-Hewitt is a design museum there is a heady freedom permitted curators and exhibition designers; behind the wall text panels are lit cases filled with the accoutrements of hotel life: artfully stacked Martini glasses, travel-sized toothbrushes and the ubiquitous and insinuating 'Do Not Disturb' sign. As an installation in itself, the wall panel's full integration within the larger exhibition is both evocative and effective.

Exhausting but energizing, 'New Hotels for Global Nomads' is the best kind of themed exhibition, grouping diverse artists, architects and objects with the aim of broadening the visual and psychological terrain surrounding the hotel. Perhaps the only thing lacking is work that is critically engaged in the obvious issues that come with global expansion, capitalism and wealth: most notably, labour. Other than Calle's, there is not one work that hints at the possibility of employees, or people who actually work in hotels - just those who sleep, eat and lounge in them. For those with means 'New Hotels' offers enticing options. For the rest of us it is a heady travelogue, as satisfying as any means of vicarious living.

Issue 75

First published in Issue 75

May 2003