Golden Age

A Brief History of Boutique Hotels

This is the true story of what happens when a group of independent thinkers stop following the status quo and start creating a better kind of hotel.

When you think of a boutique hotel, what do you think of? It’s a tough question; boutique hotels are as varied and unique as the imagination will allow. At Tablet, we prefer to think of them as being the indie rock of the hotel world. It would be inaccurate to call them punk, since a substantial amount of capital is required to open one — you’d need a few more than just three chords — but indie rock, with its air of exclusivity, its post-grad progressivism, and its inevitable co-opting by the major labels, seems a proper fit.

The pioneers of the boutique hotel movement were not outsiders by any socioeconomic standard, but they were rebels willing to buck the system and take risks. They came from the hospitality and service worlds and they were growing tired of what those worlds had become. They wanted to create hotels that were intimate and more reflective of their own lifestyles and interests.

They wanted to design, if not for a specific type of guest, then for a guest seeking a very specific type of experience. But what their passion actually led to was the creation of hotels for all types, while kicking off the golden age of hotel design.

The Trailblazers

Throughout history, hotels had largely been sorted by cost, with options for high, low, and mid-range budgets. Boutique hotels came along and started filling in the blanks and coloring outside the lines.

 

Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck’s hotels revolutionized hospitality (clockwise from top: Clift, Sanderson, Delano).

 

Back in the early days of Tablet, it was easy, at least in cities like New York and London, to point to the kinds of hotels we were most interested in. Boutique hotels were more or less synonymous with Ian Schrager, who effectively created the genre in 1984 with the recently closed Morgans hotel in New York City. Schrager founded Morgans Hotel Group, partnered with designer Philippe Starck, and lit the fuse of what would become the boutique boom. In the coming years, they defined an era with hotels like the Delano in Miami, the Mondrian in Los Angeles, the Clift in San Francisco, and the Sanderson in London.

Marked by an emphasis on public spaces, these hotels set a new agenda for the industry. The lobby became a focal point for socializing, and the restaurant and bar became a fixture on the local scene rather than merely providing services for guests — and Starck’s visual style blazed a trail of pared-down minimalist simplicity joined with grand gestures of high-design whimsy. Taken individually, none of these concepts were entirely novel, but they were carefully curated by Schrager and his original partner Steve Rubell to offer a new kind of hyper-social lifestyle that was noticeably more mature than their Studio 54 days.

 

André Balazs’ trendsetting Standard hotels (top, right); Anouska Hempel’s shocking and singular Blakes Hotel (bottom left).

 

If there’s any other hotel that can lay a claim to being one of the first boutiques, it’s Blakes Hotel, in London. Opened in 1978, designer Anouska Hempel shocked the hotel world with her individualistic touch, converting a set of Victorian townhouses into a dense East-meets-East wonderland, stuffed to the rafters with antiques and curios from China, Japan, India, Egypt, and beyond. Hempel might get less credit than Schrager and Starck, because the latter pair’s chic style became the default design-hotel template of the next couple decades. Blakes’ lush and eccentric decoration requires greater care to replicate and to maintain, and would be slower to catch on.

Not to be outdone, developer André Balazs purchased the famed Chateau Marmont in 1990 and set out to build a boutique hotel empire of his own, opening Sunset Beach and The Mercer in New York. He perfected his format in Los Angeles with the trendsetting Standard hotels, combining a simple, budget-friendly approach with the glamour that was once the sole province of the world’s luxury hotels. The Standard Hollywood outpost brought the visual appeal of mid-century modernism back with a vengeance — years before Mad Men — and the Downtown Standard branch anticipated the revival of the Los Angeles city center by more than a decade.

The Young Americans

A few brave pioneers had a different take on the hotel as social hub, converting run-down properties in American cities into affordable accommodations for artists, musicians, and other creative nomads seeking a sense of community.

Liz Lambert helped revitalize Austin with Hotel Saint Cecilia and Hotel San Jose (top, right); San Francisco’s legendary Phoenix Hotel (bottom left).

 

Entrepreneur Chip Conley conceived the Joie de Vivre hotel group in order to present a friendlier, more inclusive brand of boutique hospitality, with a malleable style tailored to location. He started in 1987 by buying the derelict Caravan Motor Lodge in San Francisco and rechristening it the Phoenix Hotel — transforming a forgotten flophouse into the low-frills, high-character lodging of choice for visiting entertainers, attracting everyone from David Bowie to JFK Jr. to touring bands looking for a big lot to park their buses. It might not have been obvious at the time, but his decision to renovate a dilapidated property in a gritty neighborhood would inspire the next big movement in boutique hotels.

A few years later in Texas, Liz Lambert bought Austin’s Hotel San Jose, another former flophouse, and followed the same trajectory as the Phoenix. Her success spurred the revitalization of Austin’s South Congress neighborhood and led to an upscale neighbor, the Hotel Saint Cecilia — a luxe, bohemian, residential-style oasis in a magical garden setting. Saint Cecilia is where Lambert really spread her wings, bringing a unique and distinctly personal sense of design to each space in the hotel. Soon to follow were a handful of excellent hotels across Texas and beyond that strike the perfect balance between quality, cost, and personality.

(In a bit of serendipity, the Phoenix Hotel was recently acquired by Lambert’s Bunkhouse group. It will return to Tablet shortly after a full relaunch in May 2018.)

 

Ace Hotel’s Americana style, whether in Portland (top), Seattle (left), or New Orleans (bottom), has been imitated around the world.

 

Meanwhile, in Seattle, flying very much under the radar, a former maritime workers’ hotel was converted into the original Ace Hotel. This was another lodging that prized character and personality over anything that could reasonably be called luxury. Opened in 1999, the Ace was practically a hostel, with only a few rooms that featured en-suite bathrooms, and no restaurant or bar. What it did have — and continues to have — was a confident vision and an authenticity that the big hotel brands could hardly even grasp, much less imitate. Since then, the Ace hotels have become synonymous with youth-market, creative-class hospitality — and they’ve spawned a raft of imitators.

It’s fair to say that what the glossy, minimalist Starck/Schrager look was to the turn of the millennium, the eclectic, well-worn, Americana-infused Ace/Bunkhouse style is to the present generation of boutique hoteliers.

The Completists

Something exciting was also brewing on the other end of the spectrum, as a couple of ambitious hoteliers set out to prove that a boutique hotel could be the complete package, both filled with character and as luxurious as possible.

Aman’s resorts are among the finest travel experiences on earth (clockwise from top: Amanyara, Aman Summer Palace, Amapuri).

 

In 1988, Adrian Zecha was way ahead of the curve. On an isolated Phuket beach, the site of a former coconut plantation, he wanted to build a small resort packed with luxe amenities, activities, and world-class dining. But banks were unwilling to fund a project they thought was, for its time, too boutique for such a remote locale. Their loss. Zecha and his partners financed Amanpuri with their own money, and since then, Aman Resorts has crafted many of the world’s finest travel experiences, providing the ultimate blend of the intensely personal, the distinctly romantic, the wildly adventurous, and the extravagantly luxurious.

 

The hotels of the London-based Firmdale group exude both comfort and character.

 

Looking to do something similar in an urban environment, Kit and Tim Kemp’s Firmdale Hotels began in London with a test run at what’s now the Dorset Square Hotel, but by the mid-2000s they were better known for the Soho Hotel, Covent Garden Hotel, and Number Sixteen, all of which interpreted traditional English luxury hospitality through a contemporary lens and became fixtures in neighborhoods across the city’s West End. Today they’re a dominant force in the hotel world, having reached heights of both comfort and character that practically transcend the boutique and luxury categories.

The New Normal

A path had been cleared for any number of small-but-determined hotel groups to achieve liftoff. And for larger groups, a formula had been proven, giving them the confidence to adapt it to nearly ever major city.

Art and design is on full display at 21c Museum Hotel Louisville (top), 25hours Hotel Hafencity (right), and Estancia Vik (left).

 

It surely wasn’t his original intention, but if there is anything Ian Schrager should be proud of, boutique hotels being a catalyst to creative rehabilitation in lesser-visited destinations should be it. When the boutique boom really ramped up the mid-aughts, hoteliers in smaller cities realized that opening a boutique hotel would immediately draw guests looking for something different from the old standard. In fact, the ability to combine architecture, art, design, food, entertainment, and culture meant that a new hotel could become a bona fide tourist attraction, inspiring people to visit the town if only to experience the hotel.

This was obvious in Kentucky, where 21c Museum Hotel Louisville opened as a total oddity, with a museum-quality art collection and a cosmopolitan style that would’ve looked right at home in London or New York. But travelers’ appetite for art and design had been stoked, and 21c didn’t just succeed in Louisville, but soon expanded to other, equally unlikely cities like Lexington, Durham, and even Bentonville (yes, the Arkansas home of Wal-Mart has a trendy art hotel).

Similarly, in Hamburg’s HafenCity, 25hours hired up-and-coming artists and local firms to create youthful, irreverent interiors that were heavily inspired by the surrounding neighborhoods, turning the hotel itself into a sort of historical art exhibit about that part of the city. And in Uruguay, investor Alexander Vik, his wife Carrie, and curator Enrique Badaró Nadal transformed a colonial-style mansion and sprawling 4,000-acre property into Estancia Vik, a luxury resort and showcase for edgy South American artwork and innovative interior design.

Thompson Hotels and Grupo Habita made boutique look easy (clockwise from top: 60 Thompson, Maison Couturier, The Beekman, Hotel Habita).

 

Boutique hotels were becoming the new normal, and two prolific brands, one in New York and one in Mexico City, deserve credit for stimulating the expansion. Thompson Hotels and Grupo Habita showed us all an outline for the future by utilizing the best parts of the past, deftly borrowing from what came before to assemble a line of boutique properties impressive for their consistency of vision and service. Whether it’s public spaces as nightlife staples, fun and funky interior design, or the restoration of once-derelict structures, their unparalleled productivity gave the first clear glimpse of just how boutique the 21st century would be.

The Inevitable

Where there’s independent innovation, there’s corporate investment, and it didn’t take long for the established chains to get in on the boutique action. But unlike most appropriated movements, this is one to be embraced.

Boutique goes mainstream with help from Miami Beach EDITION (top left), W Union Square (top right), and Andaz Tokyo (bottom).

 

Inevitably, the large hotel corporations saw there was money to be made in diversifying, and today, most of them have boutique-style sub-brands. One of the first and most successful were the W hotels, Starwood’s response to the Schrager/Starck phenomenon. Hyatt launched their Andaz and Centric chains, Accor introduced MGallery, and Ian Schrager himself even cashed in, partnering with Marriott for their EDITION hotels. That may not suit the David-slays-Goliath underdog narrative that we’re all so fond of, but in the end, today’s traveler can expect much more style, much more personality, and a much more memorable experience than they could before the Schrager hotels hit the scene.

In just a couple decades, the language of what the average hotel is, and must be, was completely rewritten. It could even be argued that all hotels are now boutique hotels. Not just because the lobby at your roadside budget chain looks a little more futuristic, but because every hotel, even the legendary grand dames, are being forced to angle for their specific type of guest. This is a welcome democratization of the market, giving guests with a lower budget as many interesting options as those with a higher one, and giving all of us the opportunity to stay somewhere that speaks more directly to our soul.

It’s a net win for travelers, for designers, for hoteliers, and for us — we knew we were on to something when we launched nearly two decades ago, but as confident as we were, we couldn’t have known we were entering into hospitality’s golden age.

5 Comments
  1. I am new to reading your newsletter & have truly been enjoying it. I will, on our next round of travel also be booking your awesome picks. One suggestion, link pics to the hotel they are of. Makes it easy to check out that which visually speaks to us.

  2. Cheque Prague (Czech Rep) The Emblem Hotel. Amazing design hotel in the centre of Prague, very especial and unique project in this part of Europe! High level of design and art.
    Olga

  3. Hello! I read and enjoyed your article. To leave New York’s Gotham Hospitality Group out of the discussion, however, is to leave a hole in the early days of this developing story. Mr. Bernard Goldberg, an attorney and art collector, conceived of, built and operated a boutique hotel portfolio of almost 700 keys before it was sold in 1999. Properties such as The Mansfield, The Shoreham, The Franklin, The Wales and The Roger Williams were standard bearers of the boutique hotel and were truly original, looked upon by many operators who came later as their inspiration.

  4. Thank you for the additional information, Paul. There are definitely a lot of other worthy boutique hotels all over the world. Unfortunately, we couldn’t mention them all. The Roger Williams is now called The Roger and it is on Tablet.

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