Being Boutique & Starck Contrasts

Maybe I’m a slob, I’m not entirely sure. But once I walk through the door of a hotel room I like to spread out. The contents of my bag get strewn to all corners in a matter of minutes. This normally occurs to the strains of some ‘top stories at the top of the hour’ yank news service on the idiot box and three fingers of some duty-free firewater. Then, if I don’t have every towel hanging in various stages of saturation around the bathroom within half an hour, I know my standards are slipping. Soon after, my shirts will need pressing and the ironing board will come out (hotel room designers: why do the power point positions always dictate needing to iron in a corner perched over the top of a side table… but never somewhere convenient, like in front of the telly?) and won’t be returned for the duration of my stay.

So, you can imagine that I was more than a little surprised to recently find myself putting away the ironing board after using it. Good grief, I even used the draws available to stash my smalls.

The reason for this disturbing outbreak of tidiness was the venue — the JIA Hotel in Hong Kong. Mention JIA and the style gurus and design cognoscenti will all nod sagely… yes the JIA Boutique Hotel — designed by the inimitable Philippe Starck. And, to keep something so prosaic, so unrepentantly utilitarian as an ironing board out in a room full of Starck seating options, Flos lights etc, just… well, seemed wrong. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t feel at home in the JIA room, it was more a case of showing some respect. Actually the notion of ‘home’ is key to the JIA credo. In fact, the word ‘jia’ literally means ‘home’ in Mandarin. ‘Community’ is another key concept, as evidenced by the way JIA seeks to promote a sense of camaradarie among independently-minded and (let’s face it) arty-farty travellers. Pop down to the foyer at 6pm and you’ll find a bottle of red opened and people mingling and chatting. Breakfast is a self-service affair and the atmosphere is convivial — it’s relaxed and casual, where sophistication doesn’t mean ‘wanky’.

I couldn’t help but compare and contrast the JIA experience with my previous night’s stay. I’d found myself in Zhong-Shan on the Chinese mainland, at the five-star Shangri-La hotel. Great hotel… no complaints, but it proudly adheres to a far more traditional approach to top quality accommodation. Where the JIA was manned by a handful of professional staffers, the Shangri-La was run like a Great Pyramids working bee, with a cast of thousands attending your every footstep. The accommodation was very comfortable indeed, but I found myself in rare form, emptying all the contents of my bags before Sky News could repeat its headlines more than three times, rendering the room all but unfit for human habitation — housekeeping!.

In a serendipitous intersection of itineraries, I was able to share a 6pm JIA vino break with Paul Von Crismar of BURO Architects in Melbourne. As it happens, his firm will be designing the next JIA Hotel… this time in Shanghai, and he was staying in Hong Kong, returning from China and heading onto Bhutan to design a giant Buddha for the local prince… pro bono, no less (I’m guessing that’ll give you about 12 lifetimes of good karma). Anyway, I digress. We discussed the rise and rise of the boutique hotel. I noted that it’s a fascinating business model. As an operator, it’s likely that you need to make a larger initial investment, to ensure the grooviness is beyond reproach. But beyond that, you don’t have the same sky-high operating costs as the four- or five-star hotel around the corner — you don’t need the bell hops, concierges, night porters, shoe-shiners, best boys, and dolly grips… people aren’t staying for that I-don’t-want-to-lift-a-finger luxury, they’re there for the vibe.

The broader issue here is one that’s obvious to many but totally obscure to most — good design is a good investment. Be it a restaurant, commercial office space, a nightclub, bar, aquarium or sandwich bar; investing in design — ie. not just busking it or calling your mate’s sister-in-law ‘who used to work for the local Mitre 10’ — will invariably pay dividends.

Even if you’re Supré or Target, a bit of ‘boutique’ never goes astray. – CH

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