Hotel rooms should never be just like home

Gemma Tipton takes a look at hotel design and what it says about our desires and aspirations

When did hotel design start to inspire our domestic interiors? I understand the aspirational element, you’ll always pick up a little something on your travels, but hotels are about escapism, not the everyday.

Still, their influence is insidious: domestic bathrooms are smothered wall to wall and floor to ceiling in marble or travertine; and there are so many double sinks that I wonder how any self-respecting loving couple ever contemplated brushing their teeth and spitting into the same sink before. And bidets? I am tempted to say there has been an explosion of bidets, but let’s not go there.

There’s also a relentless monochromatic aspect. You need a neutral palette in a hotel, a style that will offend no one, and it’s a sensibility that frequently also extends to the artworks: generic prints of trees or ferns, or those abstract paintings with big swishes of yellow or blue that look like art, but aren’t.

In the home, a neutral backdrop is useful for the adventurous gestures you’ll be adding with your own beloved stuff – off-white walls or something in a pale Farrow and Ball Heritage shade, make perfect accomplices to your bright blue sofa, your mad throw that came from some tropical adventure years ago, your cheeky ceramics that may or may not resemble animals . . . but too often it’s as if we’ve taken the hotel backdrop and swallowed it wholesale.


A hotelier once described it as like being in an arms race. One side puts chocolates on the pillow, the next adds a weather forecast, then come aromatherapy sprays, extra scatter cushions on the bed, sometimes rose petals, and my personal favourite, towel origami.

Fetid petals

All that’s fine for a night or two, but do you really want to rot your teeth, forage for fetid petals weeks after the event or enter into a routine in which every night you denude your bed of those disappointingly uncomfortable, frequently bead-fringed squares of stuffed silk; and then do the whole thing in reverse the next morning before dashing off to work?

On one trip I dried myself with the hairdryer because I couldn’t bear to dismantle the folded crocodile my towels had become.

Hotels are about going somewhere different, setting foot in another world and then handing over the key for the next stranger. By definition they are the least personal spaces you could create, even though the design brief also demands they are welcoming to the degree that you imagine: if only I could live like this all the time . . .

This makes for return business, but when transferred, it also makes for impersonal homes. So much for a certain kind of hotel.

Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist and philosopher who died last week, wrote brilliantly about another.

"The poor words with which natural human speech is provided cannot suffice to describe the Madonna Inn [in California]," he writes in his collection of essays, Travels in Hyperreality. "Let's say that Albert Speer, while leafing through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overdose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli. "

Eco was a genius, who also wrote, elsewhere, that Apple Macs are essentially Catholic, while PCs are Protestant (he’s quite persuasive); also about how American academics were less well disposed to profound thought, due to their habit of wearing tight jeans.

After a few glorious pages describing the excesses of the Madonna (, he concludes that the inn “appeals to the savage taste for the amazing, the overstuffed, and the absolutely sumptuous at low price. It says to its visitors: ‘You too can have the incredible, just like a millionaire’.”

The Madonna Inn is the flip side of that aspirational coin that has designers thinking of more and more ways to show through furniture, gadgets and other insertions that this is the place to live “just like a millionaire”, for a night or two. This can lead to quirky accidents.

I stayed in the presidential suite shortly after Castlemartyr first opened. “Did you expect any English guests?” I asked the manager, showing him the books that lined the “library”.

His bewilderment turned to dismay when he realised that they were all tomes on Fenian martyrdom and the wickedness of Brits. They had bought them by the yard at a clearance sale.

Switch off the lights

On a recent trip to India, one of our group slept in her flight eye mask because, neither she, nor room service, could work out how to switch all the lights off.

The point about home design is that you don’t want to live “just like” anyone else, or rather you shouldn’t. You should want to live just like yourself.

Sometimes, though, when I think of a better possible self, I’d like to add a couple of hotel details: a whiff of starch in high thread-count sheets, a remote control to open the curtains from the bed.

And for pure escapism?

The one design detail I’d take, but know I shouldn’t? TV in bed. No, better yet, TV in the bath – daytime TV watched from the bath. With a biscuit. And a ledge so the biscuit doesn’t get damp or soapy. Now that’s what you go to hotels for. That’s design.