This year, Design Hotels celebrates its 25th anniversary—a quarter century of pioneering design and original experiences. What began in 1993 as a radical vision of what a hotel could be is now a remarkable global movement that’s changed the face of hospitality. But to understand the story of Design Hotels, you have to go back a little further, to the early 1980s, when the hotel revolution was seeing its first stirrings in the city of New York.
A rumor was flitting around Manhattan after a couple of press articles teased the opening of a new hotel by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, owners of the legendary Studio 54 nightclub. They had commissioned Andrée Putman, the Parisian grand dame of interiors and good taste, to redesign a rather mediocre, middle-class establishment. When Morgans opened in 1984, it was a sensation.
“Design Hotels was an absolute godsend to travelers like me” – Angelika Taschen, publishing pioneer
Morgans was followed in 1987 and 1989 by the Royalton and the Paramount, both with interiors by Philippe Starck (pictured below, bottom left), who set out to democratize great design, creating beautiful aesthetic environments with high-end services, but to make them available at a reasonable price point. Meanwhile across the pond, former Bond Girl and London society figure Anouska Hempel (above, left) was realizing a similar vision with Blakes Hotel, a boutique property known for its privacy and unique, exotic interiors, which she opened in South Kensington in 1978 to instant acclaim. And thus, the boutique hotel—the design hotel—was born.
In the early 1990s, you could still count the number of boutique hotels on one hand. Enter Claus Sendlinger (below, top), a forward-thinking southern German with a knack for spotting trends. His success throwing underground parties in the 1980s led to the founding of an event agency in 1987. Understanding the dawning of a new community that was looking for an evolution in the hotel industry, he pulled 10 boutique hotels together and, together with J. Peter Schweitzer, founded Design Hotels in 1993 as an international lifestyle brand.
The Claris Hotel (above, bottom right), which opened in 1992 in Barcelona, was one of those pioneering 10, as was the second exquisite hotel designed by Andrée Putman, the Wasserturm, housed in a 140-year-old former water tower in the city of Cologne. In 1990, when the hotel opened, Cologne was the European capital of the art world. The Wasserturn became an elegant symbol of a dawning movement. The portfolio grew, adding properties like the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, The Soho Hotel and the rest of Kit Kemp’s remarkable Firmdale collection in London and beyond, The Sukhothai Bangkok by influential architect and designer Edward Tuttle, and Carlos Couturier and Moises Micha’s Grupo Habita collection, which remade the Mexican travel sector with its coveted boutique properties like Mexico City’s Condesa DF. Then and now, each member hotel is a wholly unique creative expression, steeped in the history, culture, and nature of its local environment, from world capitals and exclusive mountaintops to hidden beaches, off-the-beaten-path escapes, and beyond.
Sendlinger knew intuitively that behind every truly great hotel there is a great personality with a strong vision, exceptional knowledge, patient persistence, and a love for what they do. A genuine mastermind is required, one who is equipped with plenty of refinement, sophistication, and maybe even a measure of compulsive perfectionism, to create a total experience. He began to call these masterminds “Originals” and brought them, their ideas, and their hotels together under the motto “Made by Originals” (below). Being global nomads themselves, they understand the needs and lifestyles of the 21st-century traveler in the age of globalization and the Internet. They create complete environments and escapes for people living a contemporary lifestyle, have a strong sense of what is authentic, and can distinguish between what is just good and what is great. A great hotel that you can fall in love with is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art.
Recently designated by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the 50 people changing the way we travel, Sendlinger is revered today, not only for launching the first hotel marketing consortium that dedicated its efforts to the arising boutique hotel movement of the early 1990s, but for his continued innovation and foresight within the travel industry.
Not long after it was founded, Design Hotels began publishing beautifully put together directories with great images as a communications tool, beginning in 1995 with the first ring-bound edition (below). These directories were a tremendous help in choosing favorite hotels before websites came along. The brochures, and later books, became bibles for travelers, and also helped create a sense of community among the independent hotel members. In 1998, the company issued its first annual yearbook edition, The Design Hotels Book, which continues today in innovative and ever-changing formats.
Always ahead of its time, Design Hotels went online as early as 1995 with its own website featuring all member hotels. Online reservations, special offers, and city guides were all included at a time when this was still revolutionary in the industry. As a global lifestyle brand and full-service content, culture, and marketing consultancy, today Design Hotels provides its member hotels customized services, including global launch campaigns, sales representation, revenue management, strategic marketing, public relations, and branding. The company runs several print and online media platforms and curates a broad range of cultural events, from talks and exhibitions to conferences, parties, performances, and experimental immersive hospitality experiences.
In 2011, Design Hotels innovated once more, launching its first temporal hospitality concept, a pop-up in Tulum, Mexico, called Papaya Playa Project. Thus, the first Design Hotels Project was born. Since then, the company has launched similar projects in Mykonos and Ibiza, nourishing a growing global community of travelers, like-minded in their pursuit of singular aesthetic environments, genuine local culture, and transformative travel experiences that defy conventional notions of luxury.
Successful ideas always attract plenty of copycats, so it is essential to keep innovating. When Design Hotels was established, boutique hospitality was a niche movement; just 10 years later, in 2003, the movement had already become mainstream, and there were more than a few bad copies. But design has become just a single facet of what Design Hotels stands for. An early proponent of sustainability, local and environmental responsibility, and cultural programming in the travel sector, Design Hotels ultimately evolved into a sophisticated global network of hoteliers, industry experts, journalists, creatives, and travelers bonded by a common vision. What’s next? You’ll just have to stay tuned.