The new luxury: discussing the modern meaning of five-star quality

29 May 2013

The luxury hospitality sector has long served as a magnet for ambitious young architects. But with excess falling out of vogue, how are today’s designers redefining the concept of a five-star hotel? Abi Millar discusses the opportunities and challenges with Manfred Jäger, Francesca Alder-Schweizer and Karim Rashid.

The nhow Hotel in Berlin is not what most people would think of as a five-star property. Billed as 'Europe's first music hotel', it sits in the buzzing city centre and boasts two professional music studios. Guests can order 'guitar and keyboard room service', play at an open mic night or arrange a jazzed-up teambuilding event. These perks are far removed from silver service and cosseting concierge.

Then there's the building itself. Designed by star architect Sergei Tchoban, it consists of three brick towers. Only the four-storey cantilever - jutting out precariously 25m above ground - disrupts the sense that we are viewing a stack of industrial brown boxes.

But it is Karim Rashid's interiors that veer furthest from luxury clichés. High-tech and hypermodern, the patterns and shapes are derived from data visualisation. There is digipop artwork on the headboards, two-way mirrors that morph into chrome desks, personalised lighting, and white-gradient-glass bathroom walls. In short, there's not a chandelier in sight.

And yet the nhow Hotel belongs squarely to the upper tier of the marketplace; a place where marble staircases formerly held court. Gone are the days when luxury was synonymous with conspicuous consumption, or when identikit glitz was sufficient to hold guests' attention. Recent years have seen a profound shift in the market, with preferences veering away from the straightforwardly lavish towards something far more inventive.

"Luxury today is seamless technology in the hotel, not expensive, heavy, excessive materials," says Rashid, a feted industrial designer and interior architect. "Luxury is perfect lighting. Luxury is new inspiring aesthetics. Luxury is a perfect fluid experience. Most luxury hotels just spend the money on luxurious cladding, but I prefer to use smart, more inexpensive, intelligent contemporary surfaces and create human experiences."

Identity crisis

This way of thinking gained momentum as a direct result of the financial crisis. In its traditional form, luxury hospitality was badly bruised. Even among those guests who could still afford it, priorities were changing - they were starting to care more about sustainability, for example, and less about excess for its own sake.

'Experience' became a buzzword. What could one luxury hotel offer that others couldn't? With competition at an all-time high, operators sought differentiators that were hard to replicate. In some cases, this meant gambits such as nhow Hotel's music theme. In others, it simply meant authenticity. In all cases, however, careful design was key; supersized suites and gold-plated mirrors were not enough.

"For me, it's important that each project has its own strong and exclusive look," says Francesca Alder-Schweizer, who has worked on the interiors of two design hotels deep within the Swiss Alps. "It's a demanding challenge to distinguish between luxuriousness and just expensive equipment. It's in the small details, the careful planning and the accurate selection of materials."

More than fondue

Alder-Schweizer designed interiors of the Giardino Mountain and Giardino Lago hotels, both of which feature in the exclusive Design Hotels portfolio; CEO Claus Sendlinger has called her work "outstanding". Marrying a traditional heritage with regional premium materials, these projects are in one sense the polar opposite of a cutting-edge city hotel, but they are just as well suited to their environment and their desired client base.

"The most important values of the Giardino group are harmony, open-mindedness and a positive attitude to life," says Alder-Schweizer. "These aspects are reflected in a comfortable, home-like feeling."

"Gone are the days when luxury was synonymous with conspicuous consumption."

The Alps is a hotbed of innovative luxury design, with Switzerland, Italy and Austria leading the pack. Formerly reliant on snow, this latest crop of mountain hotels has aimed to attract a new breed of customer, offering concepts that far surpass skiing and fondue.

"Guests are increasingly demanding," says Manfred Jäger, who created the Zhero Hotel Ischgl/Kappl in Austria. "They are not interested in just skiing - they want to have wellness facilities, they want to have restaurants, they want to have good rooms. So, when you're in the luxury market, it's important that you offer a wide range of products."

Here, the aim is not necessarily to entice new guests, but rather to wring more revenue from those who are already present.

"Three decades ago, the hotel room was the most important part of hotel revenue," Jäger adds. "But we have too many beds at the minute in my opinion, and we can't get any more customers. Nowadays, what counts is all the rest."

Zhero Ischgl/Kappl is exemplary in this regard. Ideally situated for anyone who wants to ski or hike, it also works hard to retain guests on the premises. There's an in-house fashion boutique, a spa and gym, as well as award-winning cuisine. Meanwhile, the building itself disdains to play it safe. A hybrid of local traditions and cutting-edge design, the dark, glossy exterior finds its counterpart in Tyrolean stone, wood and fur.

"You always have to produce the best design for the newest building, because every hotel is competing against the rest."

Jäger has also designed a smaller venue near Vienna, as well as Das Kronthaler on Lake Achen. What sets the Zhero apart, however, is that it is targeted at a different demographic. Rather than being expressly family-oriented, it is trendy, sporty and stylish - emblematic of what is happening as younger customers start to stay in luxury hotels.

After all, with a luxury commission comes an enticing lack of design constraints. With more money at their disposal, architects can experiment with ideas that would otherwise be financially untenable. They can use finer materials, implement cutting-edge technologies and create more diverse spaces. While this represents an unparalleled opportunity for any ambitious young designer, it is not without its difficulties.

"Your ideas and creativity need to be at the highest level," explains Jäger. "You always have to produce the best design for the newest building, because every hotel is competing against the rest."

Rashid wishes more city hotels would catch on to this logic. "I travel so often and have found that many cities lack a progressive design hotel," he says. "This is a no-brainer - every city has savvy travellers looking for new experiences and who want contemporary beautiful places to stay."

Rashid's first major commission was the Semiramis Hotel in Athens, completed in 2004. Under the auspices of art patron Dakis Joannou, he created a vibrant abode in pinks and oranges, yellows and greens, incorporating quirky self-designed furniture and a rotating collection of fine art.

Subsequent projects have varied in scale and scope: Rashid has worked on budget designer hotels in Brighton and Bremen, and has larger commissions under construction in Bangkok and Tel Aviv. But his distinctive sense of playfulness remains consistent.

"Whether you design a 50-room hotel or a 600-room hotel, the process and the work is about the same," he says. "The goal is to make the most progressive, pleasurable, engaging experience."

Strength in numbers

Alder-Schweizer is keen to point out that this cannot be a solo enterprise, with interiors, architecture and hotel management treated in isolation.

"The self-realisation of a single actor will not lead to a convincing solution in interior design or architecture," she says. "In the end, our convincing results come from a close and open-minded collaboration."

Jäger agrees - Jens Liebhauser, the owner of Zhero, was already a friend. "The relationship has to start upfront otherwise it doesn't make sense," he says. "A hundred years ago, the architect and interior designer were one person - it was only in our specialised industrial society that we decided there's a difference."

"Even as other service industries struggle, high-end hospitality remains a whir of innovation."

As for Rashid, as a key name in his field, he can afford to pick and choose his collaborators. He cherishes the friendships he has formed with hoteliers, all of whom he claims made the initial approach. And he has developed dialogues with numerous architects, pooling world-class ideas while laying competition to one side.

Where this process flounders, he feels the results speak pitifully for themselves. He laments that many developers are risk-averse - they hire conservative interior designers when the exterior is cutting-edge, or the other way round. Unfortunately, he sees the nhow Hotel as suffering precisely such a disconnect.

"The exterior and interior are so extremely different - it reminds me of going into a classic building and finding a hyper-contemporary interior," he says. "My ego tells me that it would have been an imprint of an icon for Berlin if a high-gloss chrome building had been built, instead of banal brown brick."

Rashid is currently designing several condominiums from the inside out, allowing the interior spaces to shape the façade. Through working closely with production architects, who are concerned less with design than with structural issues, he can ensure that exterior and interior are fluid. His ultimate aim is to develop a luxury hotel along these lines, orchestrating the entire project from the foundations up.

Living the fantasy

With competition tight and stakes remaining high, it seems there is a real need for visionaries in this sector. Even as other service industries struggle, high-end hospitality remains a whir of innovation and there are real gains to be made from dismantling the usual tropes. The consensus is clear: maintaining the status quo entails being left behind. Above all, Rashid is drawn to luxury hotels because of their scope to sell a fantasy.

"With hospitality design, I know that masses of people have access to my designs," he says. "They aren't just looking at it; they are physically immersing themselves inside my concepts. I love the larger experiential impact a hotel can have on people's lives."

A shower cubicle in the fitness and spa area.
The nhow’s hypermodern restaurant.
The dark, glossy interiors of the Zhero-Ischgl/Kappl in Austria.
The nhow Hotel’s reception area.

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