The Triumph of W-ism
Soon there will be 40 W Hotels around the world. That might not seem like that much in the grand scheme of things, but it you combine that with all the copy brands, such as Andasz, Element, and Starwood Lodging’s own Aloft, as well as with all the independent “design hotels,” it means that you will be able to stay in a modernist interior of the generic kind is almost as many places as you will be able to buy a demi-decent coffee from Starbucks.
W Seoul, courtesy Starwood Hotels.
The spread of W-ism, a peculiar combination of clean lines, plush surfaces, quirky details, low lighting, and a dizzying array of off-whites, is in many ways a triumph of modernism. After the false start of the 1960s, when Hilton and Intercontinental Hotels brought a hard-edged version of the International Style to cities from Amsterdam to Kampala and from Des Moines to Tuscaloosa, this latest wave of hotels is part of the general conquest of the globe by the idea that space conquers place, white is the new black, abstraction is good, and mass production can have a form, namely minimalism. I would contend that high-end hotels spread the aesthetic effectively because they becomeboth urban symbols and aspirational experiments for one-night stands, where the effective elite learns how to live. The best ones also become social centers, with W having been especially effective at turning their hotel bars and restaurant into “it” places.
W promotion, courtesy Starwood Hotels.
The wider movement of W-ism spreads from Crate & Barrel to Banana Republic (whose designers W used for some of its early hotel interiors), and from doctor’s offices (at least the tonier ones for now) to airport lounges (Delta’s new Sky Clubs are wannabe W lobbies). It is pervasive and effective. For those in my generation who grew up with the remnants of the first modernist revolution, rebelled, then reassessed, or who merely have none of the sentimental attachment to frills and neo-colonial myths, the W and its cheaper cousins give comfort, if even for a night.
W Hotels are not original. Their inspiration was the hotels Ian Schrager developed in late 1980s and early 1990s, such as the Paramount and Royalton in New York, and the Mondrian in L.A. Their décor, created by a continually changing array of local talents guided by a watchful corporate control mechanism, is derivative of whatever is showing up in the lifestyle magazines. That is not to say, however, that it is not good. Local designers can offer nice touches, such as the hammocks on the balconies in Mexico City, while talented designers such as David Rockwell, who did the original W in New York and is no dreaming one up in Paris, create a modern equivalent of grand hotel theater that is superb in its effects.
Aloft Rancho Cucamonga, courtesy Rockwell Group.
What bothers me—other than the way W Hotels represent capitalism in its ability to shut out all difference and poverty in luxury lagers protected by black-clad security—is exactly how comfortable I am in these kind of spaces. I relish the fact that, if I am stuck at an airport, I can stay in an Aloft rather than a Holiday Inn, and there are more pieces of Elm Street furniture in my house than I dare to admit. I am bothered because W-ism is so comfortable and comforting. It proves that modernism is the opium of the middle class. It lets me get a fix of that utopia we were promised in Le Corbusier’s “city of business”—once in a while. I can dream that soon all will dissolve not into white, but off-white, not into almost nothing, but into temporary oblivion, not into pure forms in light, but perfectly comfortable forms spread out under mood lighting.