Hotels as ‘living showrooms’

When Katie and Alex Clarke opened the George in Rye, a stylish revamp of an 18th-century Sussex coaching inn, they were soon inundated with inquiries from guests asking where they could buy items from the rooms.

“I get about 20 emails a week from people looking for a lamp like the one in room 10, or asking where to get that cushion with the deer print,” says Katie Clarke, who honed an eye for unusual and theatrical furnishings during a previous career as a set dresser for television and film, before opening the hotel in 2006.

So when the lease came up on a shop nearby, Clarke seized the opportunity. The store opened last summer on Rye High Street selling homeware, Frette linen and pillows (from the company that supplies the Savoy), Farrow & Ball paints and Ren skincare, all of which can be found in the George. So successful has it been, that this month they have moved to larger premises beside the hotel.

Now if a guest falls in love with the mohair throw in room six or the floor-to-ceiling toile headboard in room 11, Clarke can simply send them next door. Guests can even commission a bespoke item from one of the hotel’s suppliers, such as a colourful lampshade or vinyl wall panel from local designer Laura Oakes. “It’s a way for our guests to take a little bit of the hotel home with them,”says Clarke.

The George is part of a trend for hotels to begin selling more than accommodation. On one hand they are evolving into lifestyle brands – maximising profits by selling their own branded products. Most of the major chains, including Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt, now have an online shop selling everything from bubble bath to beds. On the other, they are also becoming showrooms for outside companies. As internet shopping has left high streets with declining footfall and a growing number of boarded-up premises, retailers and manufacturers have looked for alternatives.

Hip hotel chain Aloft (part of the Starwood group) last year signed a partnership with American interiors retailer Design Within Reach to display and sell its furniture in 20 US hotels – effectively turning the properties into furniture showrooms. Among the items for sale are Verner Panton chairs and funky Satellite chandeliers, with prices listed in catalogues in guest bedrooms.

In Europe a similar deal has been struck between the fast-expanding CitizenM group and Swiss furniture company Vitra. Robin Chadha, chief marketing officer for CitizenM, says it is a natural fit: “We’re all about affordable luxury and Vitra is an iconic brand with amazing designers. Our target audiences are the same.”

It’s not hard to see the appeal of such a collaboration: the hotel gets its pick of furniture from some of the world’s top designers (Vitra carries pieces from, among others, Charles Eames, Zaha Hadid and George Nelson) free of charge while Vitra gets to display its wares in “living showrooms” in big cities around the world. The guests also benefit from the chance to try out a piece of furniture before deciding to buy.

“The experience you have in a hotel lobby is very different to a furniture showroom where you might sit on a chair for 10 seconds before moving on to the next one,” says Chadha. “The other day I was in our London Bankside lobby and I saw a guest with his shoes off and his feet up on the Antonio Citterio sofa, reading a book, and I thought, ‘This is working.’”

For CitizenM this is not an additional revenue stream: catalogues are available in reception but there are no price tags and the furniture can only be bought from Vitra. But as well as free furniture the hotel gets the kudos of being associated with instantly recognisable design classics. “On Instagram we see a lot of ‘selfies’ of people sitting on our Eames chairs or climbing the Verner Panton Living Tower,” says Chadha.

The next phase of the partnership will see Vitra designing some bespoke pieces of furniture for CitizenM, continuing a long tradition of creative collaboration between cutting-edge designers and hotels. “Some of the most iconic pieces of furniture and design were originally commissioned for hotels,” says Matthew Turner, editor of hotel design magazine, Sleeper. “The famous Arne Jacobsen Egg chair was designed for the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen [now renamed the Radisson Blu Royal hotel] in the 1950s before it went into mass production.”

Perhaps one of the best examples of a hotel working creatively with other brands is Ace Hotels, based in Portland, Oregon. It describes its online store as an “open air flea market” which is a little disingenuous given the calibre of its wares: custom-made bikes from Brooklyn-based Horse Cycles ($2,400), digital radios from award-winning Scottish manufacturer Revo ($400) and Ace-branded grey wool blankets (from $275), which sell out as soon as they hit the site.

It’s a far cry from the traditional hotel gift shop selling monogrammed bathrobes and golfing umbrellas, and as the retail trend trickles down to individual hoteliers and even the self-catering sector, there are great possibilities for championing local artists, craftsmen and designers. At Vanessa Branson’s Riad El Fenn in Marrakech, for example, everything from the bread baskets to the hand-woven kilims on the beds are for sale.

In St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex, Kathryn Flett has decorated Caple Gardens, her self-catering holiday house, using the work of local artists. “Hastings and St Leonards are blessed with an extraordinarily diverse bunch of notable artists, photographers, designers and illustrators,” says Flett, a journalist. “I thought it would be brilliant to reflect that on the walls of the house by effectively curating it as a local gallery, but without charging a percentage on sales as a gallery would.”

Currently on display is everything from prints from Andy Tuohy to beautiful wallpapers by Deborah Bowness and Louise Body. There’s a price list in the house which people can take home with them, or if they prefer, they can walk out of the door with their coveted item under their arm – “Though we’d prefer it if they left the wallpaper on the wall.”

In an age when buzzwords such as “regionality”, “authenticity” and “local provenance” are bandied around – usually in connection with food – for hoteliers and accommodation providers to embrace the local art and design talent seems like a logical next step.

“I get beautiful work to decorate the house for nothing and the artists and designers get the chance to be seen in a domestic setting by people who might not otherwise view their work,” says Flett. “It’s a win-win situation: I don’t understand why everyone isn’t doing it this way.”


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