The following is an excerpt from the latest episode of Slate’s podcast Decoder Ring. Listen to the full episode using the audio player below, or via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.
In 2016, the world’s largest budget hotel chain, Super 8, underwent an art makeover. Whatever you imagine when you imagine quintessentially kitschy hotel art—a deer by a babbling brook near a lamplit cottage, a Bob Ross paint-by-numbers special, powdery winterscapes of quaint villages, maybe even a velvet painting if you’re lucky—that’s the kind of stuff that had been hanging in Super 8 rooms since the chain was founded in 1974. But at two events, one hosted by Amy Sedaris at a gallery space in New York and another at Art Basel in Miami, Super 8 gave much of it away, a signal that the age of kitsch hotel art was, for Super 8s, officially over.
When we decided to do an episode about hotel art, we thought we would be doing an episode about, well, hotel art—exactly the sort of ugly, shoddy, cheap paintings that used to hang in Super 8s. But it turns out that’s an outdated understanding. Sure, you still regularly come across ugly work in hotels, but Super 8’s move away from kitsch is part of a decadeslong trend on the part of hotels—hotels of all price points—to reclaim hotel art. In recent years, hotel art has been transformed from something unconsidered and embarrassing into a selling point—a sign of sophistication and authenticity, an Instagram photo-op, a communication to customers about the kind of people they are and the kind of hotel they’re staying at, or, at the very least, evidence that the hotel isn’t desperately behind the times. Hotel art, if you can believe it, has become a signifier of good taste.
At the Bellagio in Las Vegas, which was opened by the art collector and hotelier Steve Wynn, a $10 million glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly blooms out of the lobby’s ceiling. The W Hotel in South Beach, Florida, has a collection that includes work by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Julian Schnabel—who himself redesigned the interiors of the Gramercy Park Hotel in 2006, just one of many hotels designed by artists. This month, a hotel is opening in Arles, France, that was entirely designed by the artist Jorge Pardo, and just last month another opened in lower Manhattan that turned its stairwell into the Museum of Street Art, inviting graffiti artists to spray-paint there. High-end hotels commission original work all the time, sometimes from blue-chip contemporary artists, and even nonluxury hotels boast about featuring site-specific pieces in their lobbies. And all of this is truly just scratching the surface.
In order to understand how we got here—to a place where hotels are jockeying to distinguish themselves with their art programs—you need to understand how the modern hotel came to be.
The hotel, as we know it, first appeared in America in the 1790s. At the time, inns and taverns were the norm. Places that often housed travelers as a way to procure a liquor license, they were bars with beds, basically. By contrast, these new, modern hotels wanted to emphasize their elegance and luxury. Their architecture was imposing and they were decorated beautifully, from the plush carpets to the chandeliers to the sumptuous wall hangings. And this approach, at the high end of the market, has more or less continued through to the present day.
But in the early 1900s, a man named E. M. Statler pioneered a different, more affordable version of the hotel—one that was always the same. “He was the most influential hotel man of the first half of the 20th century and he wanted people to have a reliable, predictable hotel experience, and that actually carried prestige,” says A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, the author of the book Hotel: An American History. In 1908, the Statler Hotel opened in Buffalo, New York, the first of a number of standardized hotel locations that promised customers to provide, in Statler’s words, “a bed and a bath for a dollar and a half.”
These hotels were economical, but they were also, in their way, luxurious. If you were traveling to a new, strange city, just knowing that the affordable hotel you’d end up at would be of a basic level of quality, and not a bedbug-infested flophouse, was an innovation. Reliability was so desirable that nearly 70 years after the first Statler Hotel was founded, a hotel chain like Holiday Inn was still advertising itself as, above all else, predictable—a place where “the best surprise is no surprise.”
But then the backlash to all this sameness arrived: the boutique hotel. In the late 1980s, the hotelier Ian Schrager, one of the co-founders of Studio 54, opened a few hotels in New York that immediately became sensations. One was the Royalton, which was designed by the singular Frenchman Philippe Starck, whose witty, playful lobby included velvet armchairs that leaned back at precipitous angles, wall sconces in the shape of rhinoceros horns, and three-legged chairs that had a tendency to tip over.
“These hotels in New York became the gathering spots for the beau monde,” says Mayer Rus, the West Coast editor of Architectural Digest. “Everybody wanted to have a drink, a power lunch at the Royalton, and it gave birth to this movement of hoteliers who wanted to signify cool, signify chic, and draw people into their properties by promising an experience—what would now be called a curated experience.”
These early boutique hotels had an elevated, even unexpected, style. They weren’t standardized because they wanted to set themselves—and by extension the person who stayed there—apart. These hotels could be funky, elegant, sexy, but they were intentionally designed, with a very strong sense of place, because the whole idea was that when you were there, you weren’t nowhere—you were somewhere. In the 30 years since, the idea that a hotel ought to be a designed experience has expanded beyond boutique hotels to most hotels. And if you need proof, look no further than the Super 8.
If you walk into a Super 8 today, instead of seeing, say, a kitschy, impressionistic sailboat, you’ll see two huge, chunkily framed, very polished black-and-white photographs above the bed, serving as both room art and headboard. These images are not just of anything—they’re related to the specific location of that specific Super 8. At one Fort Worth, Texas, Super 8, for example, there’s a photograph of a cowboy on a horse, in silhouette, getting ready to use his lasso. At another, a Los Angeles Super 8, there’s a photograph of Mann’s Chinese Theater, lit up at night.
“One of the things that we recognized is that this next generation of traveler, they’re interested in things like farm-to-table,” says Mike Mueller, the brand leader for Super 8s worldwide. “They want to know where things are sourced. They want to know where things are coming from, where they can go for a truly local authentic experience.”
Super 8s, which are scattered all over North America and even in China, can often be found near inauspicious interstate exits. I’ve stayed at a few in my life—driving away from college with a U-Haul full of stuff, between Chicago and New York; on a road trip, somewhere in the Texas Panhandle—and I could not possibly be more specific about their locations, because that’s what was so useful about Super 8s: They’re just right there, when right there is the middle of nowhere. The idea of a Super 8 as a place that’s anything other than a stopover, as a place that should be locally branded—it shows just how deeply ingrained this new idea of what a hotel should be has become.
To learn more about hotels and the rise of hotel-art programs, listen to Decoder Ring’s “Hotel Art.”