Rise of The Hotel Lobby Home ™

Sometimes when I interview designers there are questions I ask repeatedly. Some of those bare wonderful results, such as “Do you have a favorite project, or one you found particularly rewarding?” Unexpected answers have included: a funeral home, and one home in which a fine artist used no art on the walls, discovering the space was fine as is, without the thing she once defined her life by.

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Some questions uncover useful trends, such as “Do you have a dream project you’d love to have realized?” 90% answer a boutique hotel. The specifics are fun, like when Libby Langdon told me about her concept for a Jimmy Buffet resort. 

Some questions bear redundant answers in unhelpful ways, so I remove them from the repertoire, such as, “What has disrupted design the most since you began working in the industry? 

What has disrupted design the most since you began working in the industry?

I held onto this one for a while– I still think it’s a good question, but the way I was asking it was yielding the same half-baked results over and over again.

“Technology,” or “social media,” a designer would say, without elaborating. It’s understandable. Designers are thinking about the project right in front of them or just on the horizon. They generally don’t spend a lot of time in the past, nor do they have the time to spend learning about the latest technology. The question of disruption which I envisioned leading down some interesting rabbit holes, was proving lackluster. 

Aside from not providing depth, I had another frustration with the “technology/social media” answer: the feeling that the answer was wrong. It was, at least, not specific enough.

I don’t know the answers. That is why I ask the questions. 

I didn’t set out asking the question about disruption seeking a particular response, although when I started exploring the question further, an answer emerged that may not seem at all obvious: Air BnB. 

It may not be the answer, but it is an answer and the one we are going to explore here today. The first designer to confirm it, unprompted, was Jill Cole, whose hospitality design firm, Cole Martinez Curtis and Associates, boasts an impressive roster of boutique hotel clients and corporate chains alike. More on that in a minute. 

McClelland House Hotel Room Kitchen by Cole Martinez Curtis and Associates | Photos by R. Brad Knipstein

My experience with technology in design

My background is in film and television, and when I was still in film school, I began working in the interior design industry an intern for Design Campus, founded by Lori Dennis and Kelli Ellis. The way I describe Design Campus is this: it was like Masterclass ™, but exclusively for interior designers and architects. That is to say: we produced edu-tainment content for designers. 

Designers could watch videos of their favorite HGTV celebrity designer give a talk on Charging Flat Fees V. Hourly or How to Structure their Contracts to earn their CEUs. While at Design Campus, I managed social media, produced live events and video content, hosted my own show, Behind the Bar (on which I interviewed designers and architects about their lives while we played drinking games in the Tile Bar showroom in New York City) and designed a show house room at one point. We were a lean and mean team so everyone did a little bit of everything. Together, we were building a subscription-based streamer, ala Netflix, for the design community. 

Years later, the company was sold to a publicly-traded Canadian technology company. I joined their executive team and helped lead that transition. During that time there was very little design and a whole lot of tech start-up culture. That world was different. 

Home furnishings and interior design are often late to adopt new tech – I’ve written before about why, positing that many people buy a house and renovate it only once. Familiarity and utility take precedence over novelty because it’s often their largest investment to date, and they have to live with their choices everyday, so there is less room for error, for experimentation. The tech industry, by definition, is cutting-edge and novel. In home furnishings, it is common for a manufacturer to boast they have been ‘Family-owned for 200 years,’ whereas in tech it is not at all uncommon to hear, ‘I started this in my dorm last year.’ 

How has technology disrupted interior design?

Anticipating the answer to the disruption question, my next thought was perhaps a better question to ask is: How has technology disrupted interior design? We’re getting warmer… 

Those who spend time thinking about technology as part of their work in the design industry (Like Jamie Derringer of Trame Paris, Angela Shen-Hsieh of Alcov. AI , Stacy Throwart of AI for Interior Designers, and Michael Lamarti of Jola Interactive), unsurprisingly, have plenty to say on this topic, much of which pertains to the speed and precision with which they can get work done, but this question led us into more predictions about the future, rather than an exploration of the past. 

When you talk to designers who don’t work directly with tech about tech, a couple of points come up: 

  1. Clients often point towards photos on Instagram and Pinterest as reference points for products they want and other designers’ projects they like. (To this point, it is the ability to conjure up imagery of interiors and styles from anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice that have influenced design styles).
  2. Clients have better access to products now because of the internet. (The best argument to be made for how the internet has affected the industry up to this point is probably here). 

But there have been so many iterations of the internet and of social media. It continuously evolves and rarely is anyone specific about which iteration of an app or platform they are talking about. The Instagram we are dealing with today looks and feels nothing like the one we were dealing with 10 years ago, or even 10 days ago (The ‘Just Seen’ feature, for example, is brand new as I am writing this). The tech companies also do not make it easy to discern one version from the next while they make tiny tweaks to their algorithm. 

Most of the conversation about technology and social media with a designer or manufacturer involves trying to crack a code that keeps changing. Marketing on social media can feel like you’re in a maze with moving walls. This opaqueness is also by design: Developers are not masterminds who have it all figured out. Sure, they have a pretty good idea of how they thing the user base is going to interact with a new feature when it becomes available, but they are open to being surprised when something completely different happens and they tweak it accordingly.

Generally anxieties about social media and technology have to do with what is unknown. At the end of the day, most interior designers, even those active and prolific on social media, still get clients the good old fashioned way: via word of mouth. And conversations about technology and its larger impact, I’ve learned, are best had with those who work in tech or spend a good deal of time dealing directly with it. 

Scrolling the discovery page

I was scrolling through my own Instagram discovery page, through restaurants and hotels in Milan, recommended for me to add to my Salone trip next year. It was then that I discovered the answer to my disruption question lied in everyone’s answer to the dream project question: a boutique hotel. 

The travel industry outranks interior design in popularity on Instagram by a large margin. (Because Instagram parent company Meta is cagey, it is difficult to get specific metrics, but every list I found of top industries on IG ranks travel in its top 5 and none have interior design in their top 10). 

Technology and social media have dramatically affected how people travel and how often. It has altered expectations of travel from an aesthetic, budgetary, and activities-based perspective. From that has blossomed cottage industries, catering to the design, maintenance, and acquisition of Air Bnb’s as real estate investment properties. There is now a Vacation Rental Design Summit that takes place in High Point, just before market, which our executive editor Julie Palm has covered extensively for Design News Now

Photography from Found Home Co’s short term rental portfolio

How AirBnb has affected the interior design and real estate industries

Staying in someone else’s house has its own charms and aesthetic expectations. Picture an AirBnB: it is not quite ‘luxe hotel,’ and not quite ‘guest bedroom.’ It is its own thing. Out of AirBnb and other subsequent vacation rental competitors, a new visual language was born and spread on social media. (Here is where I argue that social media and the internet are mere tools for identifying, magnifying and perpetuating lasting movements, rarely are they originators of them). 

AirBnb’s tend to be trendy and comfortable. Their furnishing styles vary but they usually have a bit more theme to them than your primary residence might, with an emphasis on everyday, quirky little luxuries, like fun collections of mugs from places traveled or aesthetic game sets. They are more unique than what you’d find staying at a Marriott, where reliable standards are priorities. They have more in common with a home staged for sale. Less a look and more a feel, short-term vacation rentals embody a feeling that details have been thought of and convinces have been taken care of for you.

Vacation rentals sparked a real estate boom. Investors are buying properties not to flip nor to rent, but “to AirBnb.” When a proper noun becomes synonymous with the unbranded version and when that noun becomes a verb, it’s a good sign to pay attention to what its ripple effects may be. (Ie: google becomes synonymous with online search and we say “googling” or, in this case AirBnb is synonymous with vacation rental and we say “AirBnB’ing,” as in to rent out one’s home as a vacation rental). 

See Also

Vacation rental design and its impact on home furnishings

Vacation rental investors might hire the same interior designer who designed their primary residence, but they don’t need a Baker McGuire sofa upholstered in $250/yard Schumacher mohair in their AirBnb that is going to have new strangers sitting on it every week. Now their interior designer is looking at brands like Universal and Four Hands to get high-style, budget-friendly, high-performance furniture for the same client they buy antiques for at the Paris flea market. The designer who finds themselves in this situation may have to alter how they charge – if it takes them the same amount of time and skill to design their client’s AirBnb, but the furniture budget is significantly lower, they won’t be making the same profit on their furniture mark-ups.

Residential furniture manufacturers are expanding into product categories they didn’t previously have as much demand in, as a result of the vacation rental boom. In some cases, they’ll find themselves working with a higher-end interior designer than previously. Hospitality furniture manufacturers are finding more business with interior designers who predominantly design residential spaces.

Air BnB took a chunk out of luxury hotels’ pocketbooks

When AirBnb first came on the scene, it provided an alternative to the backpacker’s hostel stay. They’ve come a long way: Now there are luxury options. Competitors, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which has since pivoted their business model, emerged to fill the gap of booking out whole-home, luxurious vacation rentals. Many people prefer staying in vacation rentals for a myriad of reasons: they can travel with more people, it’s more private, they can cook in a full kitchen, they make you feel more like a local, and yes, they can still be a budget option

Dallas-based Ginger Curtis, principal of Urbanology Design is as brilliant a business woman as she is an interior designer. Her recent venture, Urbanology Properties, develops shoppable vacation rental experiences with Urbanology’s signature style. The properties provide two passive income streams, vacation rental income and proceeds from furniture and decor sales, as well as a great way to attract new design clients for her firm.

Urbanology Designs shoppable vacation rental room

Everyone wants to design a boutique hotel

The hospitality design sector has changed dramatically. I invoked the name of the wonderful Jill Cole earlier, so let’s get back to her. She is the only designer to answer the original question, what has disrupted design the most since you began working in the industry, with ‘Air BnB.’ 

This came on the heels of a streak of designers answering the ‘dream project question’ with ‘boutique hotel.’

Vacation rentals boomed during the pandemic, providing people a way to travel that felt like a safe way to dip their toes back into the world without being at a crowded hotel, sharing elevators and common spaces with non-biologicals. 

According to Cole, hotels needed to pivot: they had empty rooms, losing out on business to vacation rentals, so they did two things: 

  1. They expanded their extended stay options which boasted suites with full kitchens and more bedrooms.  
  2. Luxury hotels became residences. The Four Seasons, The St. Regis, The Aman. You can live there. 

Where an AirBnb is mostly home with a little dash of hospitality stirred in, these two hotel revamps strike a slightly different ratio, depending on the brand, to be more or less homey. 

LUMA Hotel San Francisco penthouse suite by Cole Martinez Curtis and Associates | Photography by Dylan Patrick

Building single family residences and the hotel lobby

Another great place to look for an interior design or architectural trend that is going to be around for at least another 10 years (or hopefully longer, for the sake of our planet), is to look towards the styles of new suburban tract homes being developed. For the past 10+ years, it seemed like every model home built was riffing on the modern farmhouse. The modern farmhouse has had her time and it is time to bid her adieu… 

Now, as I jog the streets of West Hollywood, where many under construction homes are starting to look inhabitable, the aesthetic has shifted to what I am calling the Hotel Lobby Home ™. It is more grand and glamorous than its farmhouse predecessor, taking its cues from penthouses and coastal resorts. It is also warmer, with more browns and brass or brushed nickel-finishes rather than stark white walls, black industrial lighting and shiplap.

The Hotel Lobby Home ™ is meant to be a primary residence, where, seemingly, the homeowners want to feel like they are living in their favorite hotel, at least in the common entertaining spaces. These homes, too, are playing with the new visual language that vacation rentals created, that social media made mainstream, and striking their own balance of home and hotel.     

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