Standing in a pretentious New York City art gallery, I heard the woman next to me sniff loudly and say: “That piece should be hanging in a hotel.”
Despite all the design-forward accommodation options around the world, there’s still an enduring cliche that hotels are humorless, colorless spaces.
It’s easy to see the appeal of spending your vacation in a pretty, Instagram-worthy spot that truly fits into a destination instead of feeling like it could have been plopped down anywhere.
But when it comes to choosing between a pre-dawn wakeup at a fashionable-neighborhood design hotel in order to get to the airport in time for my flight or just crashing at a generic airport hotel and being able to squeeze in another hour or two of rest, I always go for Option B.
That is even truer now that I’m attempting to travel during the pandemic. I still want convenience, but my number-one concern is cleanliness.
Those plain white walls might not be the most glamorous, but they make it much harder to hide dirty spots.
Lots of hotels have adopted new hygiene protocols amid the pandemic, but many of them take place outside of a guest’s watchful eye. I remember a tip a friend gave me about restaurants – you may not be able to look into the kitchen, but you can look into the bathroom and use that as a barometer of the establishment’s approach to cleanliness.
White walls are cheap, easy, and don’t require creativity. But these days, they are a place I can look for stains without needing a blue light camera.
Joa Studholme, a color curator for paint and wallpaper brand Farrow and Ball, isn’t a white wall hater either.
Not only does she ignore the “plain white = bad” philosophy, her first major Farrow and Ball line was a range of 20 different shades of white.
“White makes zero demands on you, and perhaps that’s what we need,” Studholme says. “People need to have light and spend their day in a light space.”
Although the massive upswing in people working from home during the pandemic has led to a popularity in bright colors and fun textures around the house, she points out that no matter what current trends are, her clients always ask for one room to be white – the kitchen, the place where everybody actually hangs out.
Studholme also notes that most tech objects and accessories – like that iPhone you may be reading this article on – tend to be white, giving a sleek, modern feel. Workplaces usually follow suit.
“People won’t do a pink office,” says Studholme.
Admittedly white can be a cop-out color. Hotel brands buy it by the truckload, it works in just about every market, and – if you aren’t picky about exactly what quality of white to use – it’s cheap. It’s more likely to be a sad grayish-tinged white than something in an interior designer’s country house, but it generally gets the job done.
And while huge sculptures and electric pieces of Pop Art are fun to peer at in museums, they’re too much sensory overload when I’m just trying to veg out.
A garden-variety sketch of a sunset or a little house on the top of a hill, inoffensive and requiring absolutely no comprehension? Perfect.
Ultimately, though, my sense of peace in a so-called generic hotel room isn’t just about paint colors or art choices.
Airports seem to exist in a place without time. The building is full of people whose body clocks are completely off kilter and it’s always a socially acceptable hour to get a glass of wine.
And that’s one of the things I love about hotels, too.
Thanks to blackout curtains, I don’t have to know whether it’s day or night out.
Room service is always just a button away. Local news from Asia, Europe and North America on TV means it is simultaneously every time zone. I can have a cup of coffee absolutely any time I want. The shower is always hot. I can control the lights and the drapes by pressing a couple of buttons next to the bed, without even needing to sit up.
Though some might call them “boring,” the uniformity of generic hotels is a blessing. Everything works in about the same way – there’s always a bar of soap to unwrap, a fresh towel to pull off the rack, a pad of paper and a pen on the desk. You can charge all your devices at once and rearrange the pile of pillows (why are there always so many pillows?) in the way you like best.
Travel makes us vulnerable. We’re tired, jet lagged, stressed and often in an unfamiliar city where we may not speak the local language. Staying at a chain hotel means that at least something is familiar.
I may be willing to experiment with food while on the road, but I’m less keen to spend 20 minutes figuring out how to use the shower handle that is crafted to look like a spray of flowers growing out of the wall. Loyalty points are just a bonus.
Not to mention that, these days, a truly independent hotel is becoming a challenge to find. Marriott’s Autograph Collection checks all the boxes for clever design and local cultural connections, while Hilton’s Curio brand is comprised of indie properties in trendy destinations like Mallorca and New Orleans.
Global mega-brands also don’t have the note of uncoolness they once did. The same people who might trash-talk McDonald’s are often first in line for a burger at In-N-Out or Shake Shack.
Not everything needs to be dramatic every day. Compared to my usual life in a cramped apartment on a loud, busy street, the quiet cool feeling of sterile placelessness is paradise.
At home, I make my own bed. If there’s a broken light bulb, I have to fix it myself. But in a hotel, I’m a cosseted, just-fed baby.
That said, though, I’d think I’d really love a pink office.