Hotel designs by Philippe Starck. Marketing & media / communications by Ian Schrager Hotels (1999)

As the design world awaits the unveiling of two new London hotels by the high-profile Philippe Starck-Ian Schrager team, R. J. Preece anticipates the media frenzy and looks at the previous results.

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Art Design Publicity at ADC | 18 March 2012
This article was previously published with an aggressive sub-edit in FRAME 10, pp. 52-55 in 1999 with the title "Headliner Hotels". The version presented here is the submitted version.

Sometimes the narratives about Starck-Schrager hotels take on the form of an epic novel, and sometimes a Harlequin romance. Sometimes the article titles sound like blockbuster films— the success story "Rags to riches", the love affair "Mutual dependence", the action-packed intrigue "Hotel wars", and the soap opera tragic-comedy "Innfighting". Yet while star-studded names like Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant might be expected with these grand titles, we soon learn that it is none other than design superstar Philippe Starck and Studio 54 disco gatekeeper-turned-hotelier Ian Schrager— our heroes in a quest for providing us with a new kind of hotel. While their most recent— the Mondrian in Los Angeles— is now three years old, we can surely anticipate a new burst of excitement with the London openings of their two newest creations this September and December.

No doubt, the four older properties are indeed exceptional. With grand public areas and tasty bedrooms, the visual dessert multiplies across the Royalton and Paramount hotels in New York (1988, 1990), the Delano in Miami’s South Beach (1995), and LA’s Mondrian (1996). And if any group of hotels deserves the word “delicious”, it may well be the Starck-Schrager combo. All have similar objectives related to Starckian designs— theatricality, surprise, and incorporating form into function via psychological and sociological response— as viewers interact with stage sets. One could even go further and say that the hotel staff appear designed as well— found and trained objects of desire to fill the cabinet de curosite. Yet while the hotels have received a certain amount of critical acclaim, facilitated publicity, and generated a true avalanche of press exposure, to what extent have the media interests interacted with the design itself?

Who can deny the power of Starck’s witticisms, surrealisms, and theatrical stage sets. In New York, the Royalton’s regal blue-carpeted lobby could make even the most straight-laced performer sashay down its catwalk and mince into the circular cocktail lounge padded in floor-to-ceiling blue velvet, or peek into the men’s room urinal-waterfall. Two blocks north, the Paramount’s two-storied lobby focal points are dazzling design— in the temple of "cheap chic". The rose garden-set-in-marble wall, the triangular staircase flanked by angled wall and glass sheet railing— with computer-driven, mood altering light installation— and adjacent seating centered on checkerboard rug all command attention. Nearby, colored-light elevators take guests to their rooms. While notoriously small, design-maximized spaces include oversized painting-headboards— 17th century Vermeer’s such as The lacemaker and four later additions. Alternatively, stark white canvases are offered— intended to provide “an entirely different mood upon every room that range from minimalist, almost Zen-like calm, to warm and comforting to bold and witty.”

Meanwhile, across the continent in Los Angeles, the Mondrian’s entrance takes Pop Art proportions recalling sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s work— be it the 30-foot monumental, mahogany doors outside the entrance or giant clay pots. Designed to visualize the fantasy of the “sophisticated adult theme park”, the size and power relationships are similar to St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Next to one of Starck’s trademark long tables, Starck’s insect-looking W W stool awaits its prey. While looking near impossible to sit on, it’s one of the preeminent 20th century sex symbols of seating enticing viewers— closer and closer— within striking distance.

And what about Miami Beach’s Delano hotel? From start to finish, the “indoor-outdoor” lobby is chock-full of stimulating focal points— the Alice in Wonderland blue door and green hedge, the lobby porch with oversized pendant lamp, the selected and strategically positioned Eames’ La chaise (1948)— still as sexy after all these years. Well into the lobby’s catwalk, the dreamy white drapery forms stage set installations and the angled walk-in kitchen looks almost like a TV game show prize. While at times rehashing Starckisms, the hypnotic procession leads out to the indoor-turned-outdoor furnishings, giant chessboard installation, and the pool dubbed “water salon”. Upstairs, the guest rooms are saturated in the rage-creating whiteness with focalized green apple installation. The list of design notables goes on and on. How could anyone avoid looking at the screaming “look at me” focal points— constructed with textbook accuracy— manipulation of light, color, shape, space, size, content, et cetera, et cetera. So smooth, and so visually— and textually— seductive, is it even possible that they could be ignored?

Yet, Starck did not make these design environments within a vacuum. In addition to the interactive design process, his combined efforts with Ian Schrager well-establish them as living legends. Clearly, the only way to understand the designs includes the critical Schrager context— complete with the hotels’ restaurants, bars, the role of lobby socializing throughout the hotels, his celebrity lineup and media expertise. Exposure-wise, Starck has clearly benefited from the combination of media markets the multi-dimensional hotels have accessed— not only the art and design press, but lifestyle, travel, popular culture, hotels, restaurants, and celebrity press— across newspapers, general and trade magazines, and well into books. Starck has well over 1000 press clippings, and the Delano hotel— completed only 4 years ago— well over 100. These numbers don’t even begin to adequately address the power of a paragraph or fleeting sentence mentioning the hotel in wide-ranging possible contexts. In fact, the writings have reached such critical mass that a comprehensive search of mentions has become functionally impossible to track down in not only English-language material, but in other world languages as well.

And what is Schrager’s design role? In FX (1995 / 96), Schrager is quoted as saying “I am the editor on each project… Starck is one of the stars of a team of 10 to 15 people work on my hotels.” In Interior Design (February 1991), he’s quoted as saying “Hotels are not about design. Design is just one of the elements. It’s part of the total equation.” And in Lodging Hospitality (August 1995) “Design is a marketing tool… It gets us noticed.” Looking back at the accessible, seductive, “look-at-me” designs, they certainly not only facilitate sexy news releases and press kits— they jump well into magazines, as has happened in this article, which adds another clipping to the heap. As the aim of press releases is to get past editors and into editorial pages, the Starck-Schrager combo is utterly brilliant. In a case study for the Delano hotel, the visual focal points quickly became, and become, textual— alongside spicy celebrity mentions including Philippe Starck and Ian Schrager— with sexy phrases fulfilling certain publication desires for new, exciting, unusual, and noteworthy flashes. The designs demonstrate a power in the media mix— a visual-experiential phenomenon steamrolling directly into print, optionally supported by visual, via press release or not— amidst identification, function, and theme in the paragraph procession.

Did the chicken— or the media interests— come before the egg? This we’ll have no real way of knowing as we cannot penetrate the design process mysticism. But whether “design is a marketing tool” or vice versa doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the power of design to manipulate— either visually, psychologically, or even physiologically— not only the viewers and readers, but also writer-editor gatekeepers-information providers. For this, the hotels need to be considered within their media design context, their photography, their press kits, and their clippings as critical communicators to take notice, bring people in, and provide the pleasure of not only the newfound discovery, but also the feeling of experiencing the familiar when visiting an unfamiliar place— be it the pyramids, the New York skyline, the Grand Canyon, or the Delano.

So, while standard design-centered interpretations have discussed theatricality, surprise, and stage sets, positioned within contexts and illustrated with examples, the media context provides a crucial meaning to the designs. With the power of the visual, publicity, and the press— which if it didn’t exist, most of us wouldn’t know about these hotels— and its multi-faceted press markets, the Starck-Schrager hotels illustrate media design very impressively. But if media design were to be a model, what kind of exterior and interior landscape does the 21st century promise? If every possible “stage set” is visually competing, what will result in the capitalistic and media competition? Unlike TV sets, we can’t turn our landscapes off, and if / when designs trigger stronger physiological reaction, who controls what— the viewer or the seducer?

What can we expect with the two new London properties? While Ian Schrager Hotels PR firm dka isn’t talking— well into June— and prepares its press launch, if the past is any indicator, we can expect drop dead gorgeous stage sets for guests, the in-crowd, and the press. Yet, more interesting is the stage set for multi-faceted media consumption— the exciting and seductive themes, objects, installations, people, and places— for describing, explaining, and contextualizing. The visual-textual fusion is what makes a Starck-Schrager hotel truly unique and a true pathbreaker— downright sexy, stimulating, and creating a new, rather uncomfortable, world class. Secretly, I hope the intergalactic insect W W stool is waiting backstage in London for another performance, still powerful to draw the blockbuster crowds, mesmerizing and hypnotizing us with its interplanetary rays.

This article was based on a research dissertation at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design entitled ’The problematic discourse on "Philippe Starck’s" Delano hotel’.