There was a time when one could easily divide the hospitality industry into three distinct groups: budget, mid-range and top-end. Some independents and the emergence of the boutique concept might occasionally see the distinctions blurred, but, for the most part, the parameters were firmly set.

Within this environment, any design discussion tended to be confined exclusively to the top end of the market and the idea of the luxury aesthetic was also clearly defined, taking its cue from the late-19th-century ‘Grande Dame’ model prevalent in Europe’s capitals. Mid-range and budget operations remained utilitarian and unimaginative, seemingly freed from the responsibility of design by the promise of value.

Multinational hotel chains have exported these notions of cookie-cutter design abroad, emphasising brand dependability and aesthetic consistency as core principles and ensuring that a Ritz Carlton or Marriott has become virtually indistinguishable whether you are staying in Boston, Berlin or Beijing.

The ‘unique’ factor

But things are beginning to change. Instead of seeing a further shift towards uniform design, the age of globalisation has resulted in increased emphasis being placed upon individuality and sense of place. The influence of niche lifestyle boutique hotels has permeated the psyche of the big players in the market and ‘unique’ has become a buzzword among traditionally conservative operators and guests alike.

“A Ritz Carlton or Marriott has become virtually indistinguishable whether you are staying in Boston, Berlin or Beijing.”

A growth in cheap and frequent international travel has not only sped up such developments, but has also seen the emergence of a new demographic demanding more bang for its buck in the mid-range and budget sectors. The global economic downturn has further increased such demand and new design concepts at the budget end of the market are fast becoming as exciting as anything happening within the Marriotts and Le Méridiens of the world.

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A prime example of this is Dutch chain CitizenM. Having opened the doors of its first hotel in June 2007, the group has a clearly defined guest demographic: “They are explorers, culture-seekers, professionals and shoppers.

“They travel a lot – both long and short haul – are independent, share a respect for the places they visit and are young at heart.” They can also get a room for as little as €39.

The design concept follows the mission statement of ‘affordable luxury for the people’. Referred to as ‘industrial flexible and demountable’, rooms are prefabricated off-site, and the modular system combines functionality with comfort and design.

What cannot be offered is the sense of place being demanded at the higher end of the market, although locale does still have some influence over the manner in which public spaces are arranged. Project architect, Jeroen Vester of Amsterdam design firm Concrete explains: “We look at how people will behave in each location and that dictates the furniture and layout that will be used.”

Understanding guest requirements is key and CitizenM has tapped into a demand for the quirky and different, without ever losing sight of the end-user. “People now know more about what they want,” Vester explains. “Our intention was to create a hotel where you have everything you need. It was a functional approach with an inspirational twist.”

The functionality puzzle

Functionality is particularly important when one considers another luxury that guests within this sector are forced to sacrifice: space. The challenge is more akin to that faced by designers working on yachts or private jets. “It started like a puzzle and we had to put the pieces in,” Vester explains. “One of the biggest objectives was to hide the fact that the rooms were made in a factory and create a futuristic, industrial look. We had to fit all the items into a room by finding optimal solutions and using quality materials and lighting. There is a lot of lighting in a small space, which helps the experience.”

“You can’t just stick a chair to the ceiling of the lobby and call it a design hotel.”

Once the formula has been found, the advantages of prefab when it comes to rolling out the concept cannot be overstated. “Clearly it’s a lot cheaper and faster than if you build on-site,” Vester begins. “It also benefits operators because the speed allows you to open earlier than rival developments. The most important thing, though, is the quality: each room leaves the factory in exactly the same state; unlike in a regular hotel where you can see that the decorators had a better day doing the wallpaper for room 21 than for 30.”

The guarantee of ultimate functionality also gives it a major edge over some high-end hotels. “Design a five-star hotel and you have to come up with about 15 room types,” the architect explains. “I stayed at the new Philippe Starck hotel, Mama Shelter in Paris, and the ground floor looked great, but I hit my head a few times as there wasn’t nearly enough light. It simply wasn’t functional.”

He may have a point, but, at the other end of the market, demand for Starck-esque individuality of space is growing apace. Morgans Hotel Group, for whom Starck designed his first property, has long preached the importance of creating unique guest experiences through the use of design and has no intention of changing this approach as a result of a difficult financial climate or popularisation of the boutique concept.

“As innovators our guests expect to see the new, the better, the different; it’s what they come to our hotels for,” explains group vice-president of design Mari Balestrazzi. “Although each property is unique and of its locale, there are core underlying values to our approach: being innovative, whimsical and this whole notion of hotel as theatre.”

At the heart of this undertaking are collaborations with designers drawn from outside the world of hospitality. Names currently working on Morgans projects include Marcel Wanders, Benjamin Noriega Ortiz and Mark Zaff. Balestrazzi sees her role as enabling the vision rather than directing it. “We are always looking for innovators and are not tied to people who have designed hotels in the past,” she explains. “There’s a freshness of approach from somebody who does not know all the rituals and restrictions of hospitality design. It’s a highly collaborative process where we build strong relationships with our designers, nurture them and hope to continue working alongside them for years to come.”

“Guests’ expectations in regards to what a hotel should provide in terms of design have shifted markedly.”

Going boutique

What started as a niche approach to hotel design has now gone overground. The large chains, which for so long followed the cookie-cutter dynamic, have begun to roll out their own takes on lifestyle or boutique brands – recent examples include Marriott announcing its Ian Shrager-led Edition series and Rezidor opening its first two Missoni hotels earlier this summer “You can’t just stick a chair to the ceiling of the lobby and call it a design hotel,” chuckles Morgans CEO Fred Kleisner. “You look at some of these guys, the name that comes to mind is W, and they’re on their way to becoming the Pottery Barn of boutique hotels.”

One man who has worked on both sides of the fence is David Rockwell, currently putting the finishing touches to the Morgans Ames Boston, due to open later this year, and long-term collaborator with the hospitality giant Starwood, working extensively on W properties and helping create its ‘urban inspired’ ‘aloft’ offshoot, of which 33 have been rolled out since 2008.

He agrees that guests are now demanding a sense of place and that their expectations in regards to what a hotel should provide in terms of design have shifted markedly. “A hotel should cater to each guest, exhibit accents of its location and provide living rooms and social gathering places to make the space seem more like home,” he says. This emphasis on locale is being reflected in some of the most interesting design-led hotels beginning to appear. “Many of the progressive and imaginative hotel projects are happening where the design and creative fields are burgeoning,’ he adds. ‘Vibrant and cosmopolitan design communities are forming around local talent and attracting young designers from around the world.”

The economic downturn will not see developers scaling back such a growing emphasis on design, but we may see some changes in attitude. “Clients will be less impulsive,” believes Rockwell. “They will focus their attention on timeless sustainable spaces.”

But in developing markets, operators are making a break from tradition. Beijing, for so long synonymous with identikit multinational behemoths, has seen two extremely exciting design-led openings in the past 18 months: The Emperor, overlooking the Forbidden City, and Kengo Kuma’s first hotel project, the Opposite House. Both have demonstrated a strong appetite for local flavour and innovative spaces and would appear to be at the vanguard of an entirely new approach to ‘luxury’ accommodation: it’s good to be different.