Jennine of The Coveted is calling on fashion and street blogs to stop posting “images of cool, chic people standing around casually smoking.” Such images, she argues, promote a seductively glamorous image of a gross and dangerous habit. “Even...people who hate smoking in real life, get a voyeuristic joy out of these cool people who are immune to health hazards and smelly breath.”
“Would it be too much to ask to put out the cigarette for a moment, for the sake of social responsibility?” she asks.
The problem, of course, is that these cool, chic people do smoke, particularly on the street. (The New Yorkers in these photos often look like they’re on the street precisely because they’re smokers fleeing no-smoking buildings.) But, Jennine correctly notes, such photos are always selective. Why not edit out the cigarettes? In effect, she’s arguing that fashion blogs should further glamorize their subjects by deleting their nasty habits.
In truth, these blog photos rarely glamorize smoking. Unlike images like this, this, or this, they don't emphasize the smoking. It is unimportant to the image and the emotions it evokes. Rather, these photos normalize smoking, by depicting cigarettes as no more unusual or problematic than cell phones. You have to care about cigarettes to imbibe any message about them.
Of course, that normalization is something of a change from the treatment of cigarettes in my youth, when smoking was generally viewed as a low-class habit for losers. The unrelenting campaign against it has given smoking new cachet, making it an emblem of “heroic, sexy social outlaws,” as one observer put it in British Vogue.
Still, the main pro-cigarette bias on fashion blogs isn’t overt. It’s a side effect of the photographic medium. The still image removes the smoker from time and, thus, from the long-term consequences of the smoking. In this way, the photos are indeed glamorous, offering escape into a perfect, and illusory, moment beyond entropy, age, decay, or death.
Car blogger Chuck Goolsbee posts some great photos under the heading “Car Photo of the Day.” The one above, featuring two of the world's most glamorous artifacts, is a particular favorite of mine. I’ll return to it in a moment.
In a post last month, Chuck contrasted two photos of the same car. The first is the kind of snapshot-as-note-taking that I shoot all the time. Since it’s mostly to jog the memory, the composition doesn’t matter much. Hence, the headless car buffs, with particular emphasis on the guy in the orange polo shirt and shorts.
The second shot, a photo within the photo, is this closeup of the Jaguar. “This is the photo in my minds-eye whenever I see an XK,” Chuck wrote. “That luscious bonnet and fenders, with all those light-capturing curves.”
Since cropping was the only manipulation required to produce the second photo from the first, few documentary purists would object. Recreating the photo held in memory didn’t require retouching the mechanical reproduction of the scene, only focusing closely on one piece of it.
But go back to the photo of the E-type Jaguar and the windmills (click the photo or here for a larger view). Simply by recording a still image, the scene has been glamorized, portraying the car and windmills as autonomous icons of technological grace—no maintenance or transmission lines required. At the same time, however, the photo calls attention to distractions that would have gone unnoticed in person: the rough asphalt in the foreground and the fence interfering with the car’s lines in the middle distance.
A glamorized version of the photo would remove or downplay these distractions, focusing the scene on its emotionally meaningful components. Profiled in The New Yorker, Pascal Dangin, today’s leading retoucher of fashion photos, called blemishes and flaws “anomalies,” suggesting that they distract from the truth. A retouched scene would be literally false. But would it be more emotionally truthful?
One possibility would be to clean up the photo by cropping it, producing something like this.
There are fewer distractions now, but the photo seems cramped, with less sense of movement and the open road. Cropping may be journalistically legitimate, but it's emotionally unsatisfying.
Having read this interesting post in which photographer Mark Harmel discussed the sort of minor retouching he does to clean up distractions, I asked him what he would do with the Jaguar and windmills photo. He sent back this subtly altered version of the photo.
“The wide angle lens stretched the car out—especially in the front end,” he wrote. “I compressed it and cleaned up the grass some. I compare my style of retouching to wearing those Bose Noise-Canceling headphones. My job is to remove the visual distractions. In this photo I also cleaned up the grass some to fill in a hole. I might actually do more so there is that fluffy seed-top runs all the way across.”
The side of the road is less distracting, though the grass is now a bit too regular. And by correcting the car's front end, he made the photo more realistic—but less glamorous.
“Bring out the best, conceal the worst, and leave something to the imagination,” was George Hurrell's formula for creating glamorous portraits. That prescription runs contrary to journalistic full disclosure. It also acknowledges the selection involved in all creative presentations. Neither an article nor a photograph reproduces the world in all its continuity and complexity. Ultimately, the correct selection depends on the creator's purposes and the audience's expectations.
So which version of the car and windmills photo do you like best? Or can you do better?
Nixon famously underestimated the visual power of TV. He refused makeup, against the advice of his television advisor, Ted Rogers, even though he'd just regained health after a two-week illness. As a result, he appeared tired and run-down.
Kennedy, on the other hand, was the picture of health, tanned and ready after campaigning in California—a "bronze warrior," as Rogers described him. The perfect picture of mid-century strength, youth, and masculine glamour.
The radio audience considered Nixon the winner, but unfortunately for Nixon, that moment coincided with a shift in the public's behavior. Kennedy's youth and vigor appealed to the television audience, who thought he won the debate.
The momentum Kennedy picked up at that first debate proved too much for Nixon, in 1960, anyway. The lesson Nixon learned the hard way - never underestimate the visual impact of health and glamour—was burned in every rising politico's brain.
In recent years, we've seen another shift in media and glamour, as the particular charms of the Internet force candidates to learn how to respond quickly and effectively to a constituent base made up of citizen journalists. Being able to adeptly manage messages is even more difficult now than it was in 1960. But the importance of glamour is still there—just ask will.i.am. Even today, politicians hope to capture the healthy, young, exciting energy that Kennedy so effortlessly projected back in September 1960.
A look at the Nixon/Kennedy debates and the impact they had on the election:
Recently I found myself with time to kill in a area of Denver where there are several courthouses and high-rise office buildings. I decided to sit in a Starbucks and spend some time observing the clothing of the steady parade of customers.
Some clothing served as markers of high-status positions. The men in expensive shoes and suits were most likely connected to nearby law firms or corporate offices. Yet their clothing sometimes reflected more than business seriousness. Some of the men clearly relished looking great, right up to their impeccably cut and combed hair.
To give my observations some coherence, I decided to focus on footwear. Years ago I heard an art dealer mention footwear as one of the gauges you could use to judge people’s willingness to spend money on themselves. The premise was that if a potential customer had spent money on stylish footwear, they were also more likely to spend money buying art. Since then, several retailers of luxury goods have told me that they have learned to be careful about jumping to conclusions based on appearance. People often dress quite casually while relaxing or on vacation, and there are people with money who don't like to dress up.
Nonetheless, we all make make assumptions based on first impressions, and a salesperson in an jewelry store will instinctively notice when someone enters the store wearing nice jewelry. So while I was observing the diverse clothing styles of the Starbucks customers, I decided to see if looking first at people’s footwear would usually provide a quick indication of both the expense and style of what I would see when I looked higher.
In general this proved to be the case. Dressy shoes predicted dressy clothes, casual shoes predicted casual clothes, and so on. Nonetheless, there were enough subtle variations to keep things interesting. Casual footwear varied in stylishness over a vast range, and these variations also tended to reflect the wearer’s fashion look.
Even flip-flops varied widely. There were some decorated ones, though I saw none of the hand-decorated Swarovski crystal variety, such as those available on the internet here and here. (The latter site even offers a collection of bridal flip flops.) Fun flip flops styles generally went with fashions that were fun and looked comfortable to wear.
Footwear that exposes bare feet has been and remains a subject of debate as office wear. I saw only three women in business attire who wore flip flops, and in each case their business wear was relatively casual, and their flip flops were black and sleek, which made them look something like sandals. The women that wore them were young and appeared to be lower level employees. (I was reminded of the business maxim, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”)
While observing I also noticed that footwear and attire were sometimes used either to attract attention or seemingly to avoid attention. For example, two young women came in together, obviously from the same office. One had on black flip-flops and the other wore stylish three-inch heels. The flip-flop wearer had on a loose white blouse worn outside a knee-length, loose brown skirt. Nothing about her clothing called attention to her body, which was thin, but also rather shapeless. In contrast, the young woman wearing the stylish high-heels had on a black dress which, while still office appropriate, was short enough to showcase her remarkably beautiful legs. There were a lot of customers, and when she left Starbucks every man there turned to watch her walk away. She clearly knew the value of her legs, and had directed attention to them. And, like the stylishly dressed businessmen, she seemed to relish knowing that she looked great.
The lyrics of the above 1980s No Nonsense commercial say, “If the attitude fits, wear it.” Yet sometimes wearing different clothing can substantially influence our here-and-now attitude about ourselves. So perhaps the saying should sometimes be, “If you want an attitude, wear it.”
[Business suit photograph used by permission of jjwam, whose Flickr photostream is here. The "pink flip flops" photo is by cambodia4kidsorg, and used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]
Overeager makeover artists, devilish little brothers, and occasional Dexter fans have long enjoyed dismembering the world’s favorite doll. By contrast, Brooklyn artist Margaux Lange, 30, describes herself as “an Art jeweler who re-Members Barbie fondly.” She doesn’t tear up dolls for the sake of destruction, or for anti-Barbie social commentary. Rather, she reassembles Barbie parts into joyful jewelry: heart pendants made of Barbie busts, earrings from eyes or smiles.
New Yorkers can visit Margaux's studio this Saturday night, September 26, as part of the Morgan Arts Building Open Studio event featuring more than 25 artists (and an open bar). For details see Margaux's blog.
DG: You credit Barbie with fueling your creative life growing up—an unusually positive way of writing about an often-controversial plaything. What did Barbie mean to you as a child?
Margaux Lange: I used to be obsessed with Barbie dolls as a kid. They played a pivotal role in my development as a tool for acting out and exploring the human relationships in my own life, as well as the fantasy lives I imagined. My experience with Barbie was uniquely positive in this way. Barbie can be a source of empowerment through exploration and imagination. Each child's experience with the doll is unique and I believe there's a value in that.
I would spend hours crafting many precious details for my Barbie dolls and their miniature worlds, such as: pillows, stone fireplaces, food items, clothing, accessories, etc. Playing with Barbie dolls helped to develop my dexterity and strengthened my attention to small detail: skills imperative to the art of jewelry making.
DG: How did you get started “fondly re-membering” Barbies?
ML: Barbie made her debut in my artwork in high school and then again in various incarnations throughout college where I studied fine Art (The Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, MD.) I started to focus more on jewelry making during my junior year, and I became interested in incorporating found objects into my metal work. Because I had done artwork with Barbie in the past (drawings, sculptures, etc) it felt natural to try her out in the jewelry realm. It was an unusual idea with a strong personal connection for me, so it felt right. The Plastic Body Series Jewelry Collection continued to grow from there.
DG: How has your relationship with Barbie changed since you played with her as a child?
ML: I had no desire to cut up all my Barbies as a kid, thatʼs for sure! So that has certainly changed. As a child, I would look at a doll and she would instantly transform in my mind into the imaginary personality I had dreamed up for her.
Now I look at a doll as I would any other material: I think about how that piece of plastic is going to be transformed in an interesting, wearable way.
Iʼm also able to intellectually step back and examine the impact Barbie has had on our society from all angles now. I certainly didnʼt think about any of that as a child so of course that has changed as well.
DG: What do you think makes Barbie glamorous?
Barbie is a quintessential icon of glamour. Sheʼs intriguing and appealing on many levels, not to mention she owns the biggest wardrobe on the planet, has a multitude of cars, shoes and accessories, and has had every possible career you can imagine. I think that makes her pretty glamorous.
DG: How has the changing face of Barbie over the years influenced your work? When Mattel alters Barbieʼs face or body, do you relate to Barbie in a different way?
ML: No, I wouldnʼt say that the way I relate to Barbie changes when Mattel rolls out a new style, but it does change my work. For example, Mattel made some major changes to Barbieʼs body in the year 2000 when they introduced the new “belly-button models” which had wider hips, a more shapely bum, and for the first time, a belly button and a smaller chest. Because her new bust size was smaller than the original Barbieʼs, it happened to be the perfect size and shape for making my Have-a-Heart Necklaces, which are now a prominent piece in my production line.
DG: Barbie is the quintessential blue-eyed blonde, but some of your pieces (the bust hearts, for instance) play with different skin tones. Is Barbie actually more varied than we think of her?
Barbie is a lot more varied than people assume. There is quite a lot of difference in skin tones, body styles, hair colors and facial features as well. Itʼs interesting however, that when we think of “Barbie: the icon” an image of blonde hair and blue eyes is what comes to mind.
DG: When talking about your work, you mention the vast impact that Barbie has had on our society. What do you think is the most important impact Barbie has had over the last 50 years? Do you think her impact has been more positive or negative?
The most important impact she has had has probably been on the millions of little girls who have been drawn to Barbie as a way to understand, what is to them, a very abstract notion of “Womanhood.” Barbie is very unlike us as little girls, and yet under our complete control to manipulate and project onto her “adult-hood” in whatever way we wish. There is enormous power in that type of imaginary play.
However, thatʼs not to say thereʼs nothing to examine regarding Barbie as an ideology. Barbieʼs life of excess has certainly had its negative implications. Particularly the dollʼs emphasis on materialism, beauty, and fashion. We are a nation obsessed with beauty and youth, and Barbie is a direct reflection of our cultural impulses in this way. Plastic and forever youthful, she remains relevant and in-vogue. With each generation, she is re-invented as we see fit to define her. I wouldnʼt be surprised if she sticks around for another 50 years because of this.
DG: Other artists have made Barbie-inspired work, particularly work that deconstructs or takes Barbie apart, often in violent ways. Why do you think we have this urge to deconstruct Barbie?
Barbie is the most beloved and maligned of playthings. Rarely do we feel indifferent about her. I think the urge to destroy Barbie comes from this polarization. To some, she represents oppression in the form of unattainable perfection and unrealistic beauty standards. Thereʼs something cathartic about deconstructing a symbol of those ideals.
At times, my work has dealt with utilizing the doll as an archetype for critiquing beauty, materialism, and prescribed gender roles often associated with women in our society. Sometimes I aim to distance myself and critically evaluate pop culture in this way, and other times I wish to engage and participate in it. Much like my own experience with womanhood as a feminist: a series of rejecting and embracing.
DG: Who buys your work and why?
The Plastic Body Series is sought after by Art Jewelry collectors, Barbie nostalgics, and bold individuals who arenʼt afraid to wear jewelry that sparks a conversation. Some people respond to its humor and think itʼs clever and fun, or it feeds a sense of nostalgia for them. Some wear it as a feminist statement and others simply appreciate it because itʼs bizarre and unique.
I love that everyone brings his or her own baggage and reaction to the work. Itʼs indicative of their own relationship with, or feelings about the icon, as well as how an individual defines wearable jewelry. My goal has been to create Art that a broad range of people can relate to and I feel Iʼve been successful with this.
A background in fine Art gave me the foundation necessary for conceptual exploration in my jewelry work, however, it is my personal connection with Barbie that I credit for the success of this series. It's ironic that what I adored as a child has become the focus of my career as an adult.
DG: Where do you get your components? Do you buy used Barbies? New Barbies in bulk?
ML: I acquire all the dolls as second-hand objects; usually from yard sales, thrift stores, and Ebay. I also have a few friends across the country that are always on the lookout for me. I have thousands of “previously owned” Barbie dolls and parts in my studio from which to choose. It’s important to me that the dolls have had a previous life in the hands of a child. It's a crucial part of the story, the love, and the conceptual basis for the work. I also really like the idea that the dolls are being repurposed after they’re discarded and are contributing to Art, not landfills.
The DG Dozen
1) How do you define glamour?
Glamour is something or someone that exudes a particular allure, an air of confidence, style, uniqueness, distinction, beauty, and grace.
2) Who or what is your glamorous icon?
Besides Barbie? My grandmother was always very glamourous to me growing up. For instance, she would never dream of putting a carton of milk on the table as is, it always went into a “proper” carafe or something first. This seemed very glamorous to me.
3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? Luxury.
4) Favorite glamorous movie? I canʼt think of any... I tend to like horror flicks and indie films. Amelie is a favorite movie of mine, and glamorous in its own unique way I think, perhaps because itʼs French.
My engagement ring! Itʼs made with raw diamonds and yellow gold. Itʼs totally glamorous because thereʼs a big cluster of diamonds on the top and yet because raw diamonds look rough when theyʼre not faceted, it feels humble at the same time, almost like large grains of sparkling sand. Itʼs so unusual, and so me, I just love it.
7) Most glamorous place? Mendocino, California. I went there with my fiancé and we stayed in this amazing bed & breakfast overlooking the ocean. It was incredibly romantic and glamorous for us!
8) Most glamorous job?
Oh dear, I could provide you with a very long list of all the non-glamorous jobs Iʼve had! Picking the most glamorous is a bit harder. I guess Iʼd have to say that being a self-employed artist has been the most glamorous. Even though itʼs difficult at times, I love what I do and I know Iʼm really fortunate to be able to pursue my passion full time.
9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you donʼt? Smoking. Yuck!
10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized? A jewelry artist who is also a dear friend of mine, Kate Cusack: www.katecusack.com
11) Can glamour survive? I think there will always be glamour, although I think the way each generation defines it will continue to shift and change.
12) Is glamour something you're born with? No, of course not. All weʼre born with is our birthday suit!
Old Hollywood glamour is Jean Harlow lounging suggestively in a white satin gown or Fred Astaire sweeping Ginger Rogers across a ballroom floor; Rita Hayworth peeling off long black gloves or Greta Garbo staring mysteriously off to sea. It is decidedly not a gingham-clad, jolie laide farm girl and her scrappy little dog. Dorothy, Toto, and their companions may be beloved—familiar family friends introduced by each generation to the next. In our fond memories, however, they do not qualify as glamorous.
But now that The Wizard of Oz has survived its 70th anniversary and is about to get high-definition release in theaters and on DVD, it is time to reassess. The Wizard of Oz is actually one of the studio era’s most emotionally sophisticated explorations of glamour. It does not offer us a luxuriously attired starlet or languid, sexy scenes. Instead, the movie shows us how glamour works. Glamour offers a lucid glimpse of desire fulfilled—if only life could be like that, if only we could be there, if only we could be like them, if I only had a …
In The Wizard of Oz, the principal characters aren’t the objects of glamour. They’re its audience: the dreamers who imagine their lives transformed and who learn, over the course of the film, that even illusions can reveal inner truths.
Aspiring models and aspiring fashion photographers share a Catch-22 problem. Neither is likely to find paid work without a portfolio of professional quality photographs. To have such a portfolio, the model needs to have been photographed by skilled photographers, and the photographer needs to have photographed beautiful models. But how do you develop a professional-looking portfolio before working professionally?
One answer is to pay a professional model or photographer for their time. If a top agency signs a model, they may pay a professional photographer to create a portfolio. For an aspiring model to do this herself would be expensive. This makes young women who want to try modeling vulnerable to scams, and there are many disreputable agencies and photographers who will gladly take their money.
Yet aspiring models do need good photographs to demonstrate that they are photogenic (not always the same as being beautiful in person). Normal human vision is stereoptic and three dimensional. A single-lens camera can only record two-dimensional information, and our perception of shapes in photographs depends on the angle and quality of light that falls on the subject, as well as on how the subject reflects that light back. Faces with strong bone structures and unusual features may photograph beautifully because they reflect back well-defined shapes and shadows (notice the above model’s unusual eyes). Makeup can also be used to create dimensional illusions. Experienced photographers are always concerned about how the light falling on a subject defines it dimensionally.
Conversely, aspiring fashion photographers need to work with photogenic models in order to build their portfolio. They can ask their friends and acquaintances, but as one workshop for aspiring photographers put it bluntly, you need the chance to work with models who photograph at 8 or above on a 10-point scale (something few people do). Photographer workshops sometimes provide students with models and some coaching, but for workshops the students must pay a fee. In better workshops the ratio between students and models is low, such as 2:1. In the photo at right the student is getting a chance to work with a model 1:1. Notice how side lighting is helping the muscles in the model’s leg look exceptionally well-defined, but also leaves her face in shadow. One solution would be to have an assistant use a white reflector to bounce more light to her face, but finding a solution first requires consciously noticing the problem—that the light falling on her face fails to define her features in a way that a camera can clearly record. If the student does notice the problem, then he might decide to add light, change her pose, or change locations. He has to learn to be constantly aware of the relationship between his subject and the direction and quality of various sources of light.
While researching this post I looked at several websites listing would-be models. Looking at some of these sites made me sad. (Two examples are here and here.) Many individuals listed would appear to have no chance of becoming paid models (as is true of most people). But, regardless of that, far too many of them were represented by terrible photographs. Many have posted casual snapshots of themselves taken by someone who was obviously not a photographer. These snapshots typically featured no careful hairstyling or makeup, a depressingly mundane location, and truly horrible lighting. Such photographs work against any chance they have of being hired as models—their photographs brand them as non-professional.
One possible solution to building a strong portfolio is a barter system. Realizing that it can be mutually beneficial for good models and photographers to work with each other, there are a number of internet networking sites for them. Some members of these sites will exchange their time for either CDs of images (TFCD) or prints (TFP). In this way both models and photographers can build their portfolios. Naturally, the more work the members have booked as paid professionals, the more likely they are to seek monetary payment for their time.
Flickr contains photographs from a number of fine photographers and photogenic people, and Flickr images can be easily searched. The image at right and the first image in this post were found on Flickr, and both contained a link to the Canadian site Model Republic, a fashion networking site for people working in all aspects of the industry. You can find some impressive model and photographer portfolios on other networking sites (such as Model Mayhem and iStudio). Some of these sites require potential members to submit images which are screened for quality before they are allowed to join.
Aspiring models need to be cautious about donating their time. They don’t want to find themselves posing for an untalented and potentially creepy GWC (guy with camera). A t-shirt proclaiming the wearer is a Professional GWC is not a reference. If a photographer has done good work, he or she should be willing to show samples.
One tongue-in-cheek member of Model Mayhem is GWC, a fictional nerd photographer from Baltimore who offers “drive-by shooting workshops.” For these workshops “students” pay a fee to sit in the back of his pickup, and, beginning and ending at a Hooters parking lot, he drives around spotting “hotties” to photograph on the move. His gallery of photos includes an out-of-focus portrait and a magazine cover titled “Perfect 5½” that features “the best models we can afford.” His fictional character personifies just the sort of GWCs that models hope to avoid.
Workshop photo shoots happen all over the world (the workshop shown here was in Singapore). People in some Asian countries seem particularly open to posing for and taking glamour shots. I have often seen young Japanese women strike fashion poses as soon as a friend turns a camera their direction.
The young men shown in this workshop photo shoot are likely enjoying themselves, despite the 6:1 student-to-model ratio. Perhaps each fantasizes that someday he will be paid to take photographs of an endless supply of beautiful models. It’s an unlikely dream, but if nothing else they are learning by trial and error that you need a lot more than just a camera and a beautiful subject to produce a professional-looking fashion photograph. Aptitude, and hard-won knowledge and experience are also essential requirements.
["Ariana" and "City Style and Living Shoot" are from photographix.ca's Flickr photostream. "Posing Jess" and "Railroad Shoot" are from madaboutasia. All are used under the Flickr Creative Common's license.]
To cap off Hotel Week, we asked the team at Mr & Mrs Smith to compile a Top 10. (As an added touch of glamour, we even kept the British spellings.) Post a comment telling which of these you find most glamorous, or describing your own favorite glamorous hotel, and you could win a copy of The Global Shortlist, their lusciously illustrated guidebook. [VP]
We’ve posed by rooftop plunge pools, cavorted on Caribbean islands and dallied in designer dens (all in the name of research, of course) to bring you our run-down of the 10 most glamorous hotels from around the world. All that’s left for you to do is sit back, sip champagne and decide whether you want to play A-list celeb, Park Avenue princess or lord of a country manor…
Sister to Hollywood’s mansion of misbehaviour, Chateau Marmont, the Mercer is as much a classic as Manhattan the cocktail, Manhattan the movie, and Manhattan the city. Everything here is on a grand scale, from the huge windows bathing rooms in light, to the gargantuan marble bathrooms. The look is understated, edgy glamour, and the hotel’s a favorite of the fash pack. As a guest you have a golden ticket to the hotel’s achingly cool club, SubMercer, with its metallic mosaic floors and mirrored ceilings. It’s easy to see why some people unpack their Vuittons and just never leave…
Sitting on a cliff top above the Aegean, the terraces and colonnades of this whitewashed hotel jut out imposingly from the rock-face. Attentive but unobtrusive staff seem to appear out of the stonework when needed, as though unwilling to disturb the perfect balance of clean lines, clean living, and absolute peace. The turquoise infinity pool – a major draw for the island-hopping playboys and girls that stay here – looks out onto the sea and is the perfect spot to sun-bask in an over-sized lounger, sipping on the frozen fruit shots distributed by staff and planning an evening’s misbehaviour in lively Mykonos Town, just down the road.
Perched atop a grand, green knoll in the Berkshire Hills, Wheatleigh combines the grandeur of a Florentine palazzo with the intimacy of a country cottage. With antique furniture and modern oil paintings, and a 22-acre landscaped-garden setting, Wheatleigh is a luxurious country-house classic. And, with 19 rooms, massages on demand, and staff happy to bring out snacks as you float in the pool, you’ll feel like the lord of the manor.
Hotels don’t come any more exclusive than Cotton House. Only accessible by private plane, the tiny island of Mustique is a bubble of inviolable luxury, with perfect beaches shared only between the hotel’s guests and the island’s celebrity rich. The coral-white boutique hotel, once a plantation house, combines French West Indies architecture with Caribbean trimmings. It’s the social hub of the island, too – every Tuesday, the super-rich neighborhood villa owners flock to the Great Room bar for champagne and canapés. Rooms are decorated in muted, beachy shades with floor-to-ceiling windows to maximize the breathtaking sea views.
Style Decadence and debauchery Setting High on Sunset
LA icon Chateau Marmont is the stuff of legend. Sitting high in the hills, this pseudo-Norman chateau is all turrets, towers, and vaulted colonnades – with a magnum-full of celebs thrown in for good measure. The hotel’s idiosyncratic pseudo-Norman architecture shines out across LA from high in the hills like a Disney castle gone bad; its turrets and towers a siren call to playboys and their perfectly coiffed muses. Chateau Marmont may have a reputation for hard-partying, non-stop glamour, but the reason those in the know return time after time is simple: classic good looks that haven’t dated a jot, moreish menus by one of New York’s most feted new chefs, an intimate ambiance, and staff who know how to pamper without imposing. Truly, one of the classiest hotel acts around.
From the outside La Purificadora resembles its previous incarnation – a 19th-century water-bottling factory – but once you pass reception (with its artfully preserved peeling paintwork), the hotel opens out into a cathedral of space, with rough granite walls and monolithic pillars made from reclaimed wood. Water trickles down the staircase to a pool at the bottom, and two huge fire pits surrounded by purple cubist sofas dominate the lobby.
One thing’s for certain – La Purificadora is cool. The spectacular rooftop pool oozes sex appeal with glowing onyx pillars and glass walls, giving the suitably sultry margarita-suppers cheeky underwater views from the bar. La Purificadora is the architectural equivalent of a shot of tequila: momentarily overwhelming, but it sure makes your weekend go with a bang.
With original cage elevators and art deco furnishings, this Beaux Arts hotel exudes demure elegance. Rooms are a mix of classic and contemporary, with Louis XV-inspired furniture sitting alongside 42” flatscreen TVs. The landscaped roof gardens have spectacular views of the city’s skyline, and the cherry on top is the hot tub to enjoy them from. With in-room massages, a Lexus chauffeur service, and personalized business cards for its guests, XV Beacon is a landmark of living it luxe.
London’s gentlemen’s clubs normally conjure associations of wood-paneled studies shrouded in a fog of cigar smoke and mystery, but the newly revamped St James’ hotel’s prize possession is its art collection – a massive stash of modern portraits than adorn the suites, the lobby walls, the sleek canary yellow bar area, and the hothouse of haute cuisine that is the hotel restaurant. A pristine marble staircase wends its way up from the black lacquered lobby, leading to rooms that promise hand-made Hypnos beds dressed into the most luxurious of linens and gleaming black and chrome bathrooms.
At first glance, the Shore Club appears to be quite modest – its minimalist lobby features a reserved blend of grey terrazzo floors, white sheer fabrics, and art deco-style columns. But, as fashionistas well know, it’s all in the accessories, and the Moroccan-themed furnishings, sheer white drapery and quirky one-off pieces set the style stakes high. Around the pool lie lithe, tanned hipsters, cocktails in hand, luxuriating on oversized sun loungers. And as the sun goes down, the scene hots up with more poolside posing in the hotel’s two outdoor bars, Rumbar and Sandbar.
Set blessedly apart from the Phuket tourist trail, Amanpuri may be the granddaddy of Aman Resorts’ group of insanely luxurious spa hotels, but even at 21, it still looks like it was built last week. By day, laze on a wooden sun-lounger beside the midnight-blue infinity pool (and don’t miss the incredible poolside tea and cakes at 4pm every day), or on the ice-white sands of the perfect private beach. At dusk, watch the sunset from a day-bed in the Beach Club, quaffing cocktails to a chilled-out soundtrack of lounge music, before choosing between the hotel’s three gourmet restaurants (Thai, Italian and Japanese) and settling into the chic bar for a post-prandial cigar worthy of a Bond villain.
When the Atlanta Hyatt Regency opened in 1967, its glass elevators and rotating rooftop restaurant were the talk of the Southeast. To me, growing up a couple of hours from Atlanta, the Hyatt represented “the future” as surely as any World's Fair. Architect-developer John Portman had designed it to wow visitors for whom Atlanta represented the big city. As critic Paul Goldberger writes:
Portman devised a scheme for a modern hotel built around an open atrium as a conscious rebuke to the standardized, boxy modern hotels of the nineteen-fifties and -sixties (including a preliminary design of his own, which he rejected as too conventional), based on the belief that in the troubled urban climate of the mid-nineteen-sixties, a new hotel going up in an urban site had to serve as a magnet to attract cautious suburbanites and out-of-towners. Everything about the Hyatt was geared toward visual excitement: a 220-foot tall central atrium, glass elevators, a round, revolving rooftop lounge, perched atop the building like a flying saucer.
Portman’s design did indeed represent the future of hotels. Its atrium lobby in particular became a much-imitated feature, helping to establish Hyatt as a national brand and Portman as a sought-after architect, especially in the hospitality industry. His iconic hotels include the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, shown to the right, the Westin Bonaventure in downtown L.A. (famous from In the Line of Fire, where Portman's glass elevators were important to the plot), the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, and Embarcadero Center (and its Hyatt) in San Francisco.
Ric Garrido of the Loyalty Traveler blog fondly remembers his teenage awe at the San Francisco Hyatt's atrium and the large metal sculpture that dominates it. (Photo below.)
Back in the 70s sitting in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency at Embarcadero Center provided a respite from the streets of San Francisco, same as today. Here was a large hotel space I could sit and rest my feet, use a free toilet, and drink some water while watching people move vertically through the hotel in the glass elevators and take each other’s photos in front of the sculpture.
Ironically the criticism of John Portman’s hotel atrium designs is that the focus of these large buildings is interior rather than exterior. The buildings are considered exclusionary to the people outside on the city streets. My memories of the Hyatt Regency San Francisco as a place where I could enjoy the beauty and comfort of a grand hotel as a person seeking shelter from the streets defies that criticism. The Hyatt Regency San Francisco is a hotel I have visited for over 30 years, yet I was a registered hotel guest for the first time in 2008.
Portman in effect reinvented the American hotel lobby as it had been experienced in the 19th century, a trend that has intensified over the past decade or so, even as Portman's once-radical designs have come to seem somewhat old-fashioned.
On October 17, an exhibit devoted to Portman's work opens at the High Museum in Atlanta. The following description of the Atlanta Hyatt Regency is drawn, with permission, from the catalog, John Portman: Art and Architecture, to be published by the University of Georgia Press.
The hotel, John Portman’s first, revolutionized an entire industry by introducing the atrium concept to contemporary hotel design. The hotel was conceived as a totally new guest experience: the antithesis of the traditional, tightly confined double-corridor hotel. The design goal was to open the interior space to create a dynamic, uplifting environment, one that would bring the energy and life of the city indoors, while providing restaurants, cafés, and bars that would attract visitors, not just guests.
The 22-story concrete structure was figuratively “exploded” to create the huge, sky-lit atrium. With natural light, sculpture, trees, and water, the interior resembles a large outdoor piazza bordered by a sidewalk café. (Originally, the lobby featured a three-story aviary, home to colorful Macaws and other tropical birds.) The glass elevator cabs were exposed, turning the elevators into kinetic sculptures, creating a sense of movement and drama. Passengers on the glass elevators could view the Atlanta skyline as the elevator continued through the atrium roof to the blue-domed revolving restaurant above.
Many professionals saw the atrium design as a liability—an enormous waste of space. During the hotel’s construction, legendary hotel operator Conrad Hilton was quoted as observing, “That concrete monster will never fly.” When the hotel did open, it was visited by thousands of tourists a day, forming lines around the block. The great success of the original project, which comprised 800 guestrooms, quickly prompted the expansion of two adjacent towers, creating an additional 200 and 350 guestrooms, respectively.
Hyatt’s owners, the Pritzker family of Chicago, were richly rewarded for taking a chance on Portman's unconventional designs. In fact, writes Goldberger in his catalog introduction, the hotel “tied the reputation of the Pritzkers to architecture to such an extent that a dozen years later the family established the Pritzker Prize, which has become the most famous architectural prize in the world.”
[Hyatt Regency Atlanta, 1967, view of the atrium, photo by Michael Portman and Atlanta Marriott Marquis Hotel, 1985, view of the atrium, photo by Jaime Ardiles-Arce, both courtesy of the High Museum of Art. Grand Hyatt Lobby, San Francisco, by Flickr user amnesia_x under Creative Commons license. "Atlanta Lights" by Flickr user Old Shoe Woman, used with permission.]
The American hotel is not just a place to stay but a revolutionary institution, embodying hospitality as a liberal value and delivering once-elite services in a mass, democratic form. So argues historian Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz in Hotel: An American History. With its combination business, legal, and social history, the book offers a new way of seeing an industry we think we know.
Writing in the NYT Book Review Dominique Browning called the book “dense, ambitious and valuable,” concluding, “I will never again check into a hotel without thinking of myself as an ambassador of peace; that alone, with its profound implications, makes this thoughtful book worthwhile.” (It also gave her “an entirely new take on spoiled, bratty, neglected, charming Eloise, living at the Plaza.”) “This brilliant history,” wrote Kerry Howley in Reason, “is a reminder that the fear of the traveling stranger is something we have overcome before.”
An assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico, Andrew is currently editing a special issue of Winterthur Portfolio on the subject of business architecture. We're delighted he was willing to contribute to Hotel Week.
DG: How did you get interested in hotels?
Andrew Sandoval-Strausz: It happened rather by chance. In the spring of 1996 I was in my second year of graduate school, and looking for a dissertation topic. While attending a historians’ conference, I spent some time in the beautiful second-floor lobby at the Palmer House in Chicago. As I watched the people come and go, I began to think about interactions among total strangers and how fraught they could be with delight, temptation, and danger—especially at a place with lots of alcohol and lots of beds. What if I were to write a history of hotels, with all their attendant elegance, naughtiness, and political intrigue? “Now, that,” I thought, “would be a guaranteed non-boring Ph.D. thesis!”
Palmer House lobby
DG: You write, “It is extremely easy for people to say one thing and do another....But when they construct a building—especially a large and complex one like a hotel—it is harder to argue that they didn’t really mean it.” What were the people who built America’s hotels saying?
Sandoval-Strausz: They were extending a welcome to strangers and outsiders in a way that hadn’t been done in America for almost 200 years. From the beginnings of European settlement in the early 1600s until the first hotels in the 1790s, Americans offered travelers only the most rudimentary of accommodations. European wayfarers who wrote about hospitality here were constantly complaining about bad food, overcharging, filth, vermin, and having to share beds with complete strangers. Moreover, many American communities had laws allowing them to inspect, interrogate, and eject anyone who was in a town other than their home community. But when people in the early United States started devoting enormous amounts of money, creativity, labor, and building materials to building a new class of public accommodations, it was an unmistakable sign that they had changed their views of outsiders, deciding to welcome them in style instead of viewing them with suspicion.
DG: You note that in the 19th-century guests spent very little time in their hotel rooms and that travel writers and journalists focused almost all their attention on the public areas of hotels. Why?
Sandoval-Strausz: Leading hotels at that time weren’t just about paying for a bed and a bath—they were places people went to see and be seen, to enjoy the pleasure of being in public. The entire approach to being a hotel guest was fundamentally sociable, so who would want to stay cooped up in their room? Hotel rooms were very small and plain then; it was the public areas—the lobby, dining rooms, lounges, bars, and the like—that hotelkeepers worked hardest to make beautiful.
DG: How was the role of a 19th-century hotel lobby different from the role of such a lobby today?
Sandoval-Strausz: In some respects I think today’s hotel lobbies are moving back toward the role they played a century and a half ago. After the past few decades, during which lobbies were becoming sparse, sterile spaces that were no more than waiting areas for people who wanted to go upstairs, hoteliers have again begun to see them as important gathering-places for their neighborhoods. In the nineteenth century, the lobby was the most exciting space in the entire building. Hotelkeepers spent enormous amounts of money on carpets, furniture, draperies, and other elements of décor so that they could attract people to their premises. Indeed, hotel lobbies were such important social and business centers that the majority of people in them weren’t travelers at all, but locals who simply wanted to meet friends or do business in the most vital and glamorous place in town.
DG: Today’s hotel guests tend to be baffled by the idea that an “American plan” means meals are included. What is the origin of this term? What was the appeal of the 19th-century hotel dining room?
Sandoval-Strausz: This term originated at a time when European travelers expected to take their meals privately, in their rooms. Americans thought this was impardonably rude: in a country based on the idea that “all men are created equal,” it was seen as snobbish and antisocial to want to keep your distance from others. The “American plan,” in which your room charge automatically included meals eaten in a common dining room, expressed the idea that it was proper to eat at long tables alongside your fellow citizens. For Americans, this was both a way of expressing their ideals about equality and democracy and an opportunity to put on a nice change of clothes and enjoy a banquet-like experience in a grand dining hall.
Stereoscopic view of Lick House dining room, San Francisco
DG: Luxury hotels play a prominent role in the movies of the 1930s and ’40s, with wealthy characters often living in hotels for long periods of time (sometimes permanently). How common were such living arrangements? What was the appeal of living in a hotel rather than in an apartment or house?
Sandoval-Strausz: They were very common, and not just in the 1930s and 1940s. More than a hundred years before, people recognized that living in a hotel was very convenient because so much of the everyday drudgery of living would be handled by the hotel staff. If you had the resources, you didn’t have to worry about cooking, cleaning, or laundry because hotel chefs, chambermaids, and washerwomen would do the work. Hotel living allowed single people and families to enjoy services and amenities that were usually only available to those with private servants.
DG: In the mid-19th century, critics decried the rise of hotel living for corroding family life while reformers saw hotels as a model for efficient domesticity, with shared cooking, laundry, and other services. Why did hotel living die out in the 20th century?
Sandoval-Strausz: This was in substantial part the result of housing policies that began in the 1930s and the prosperity of the 1950s and after. Under Franklin Roosevelt, the federal government brought mortgage rates down much lower than they’d ever been; and in the post-World War II period, the U.S. became the most prosperous nation that had ever existed. The combination of the two led to many people being able to afford the kind of freestanding, single-family house that was idealized for so many years in Anglo-American culture.
DG: Do hotels today represent an extension of ordinary domestic life or an escape from it? Has that changed over time?
Sandoval-Strausz: These days it’s definitely an escape, if the way they are advertised is anything to go by. Over the past ten or fifteen years, hotel companies have been emphasizing the specialness and glamour of staying at a hotel. For travelers, it’s the promise of something exotic, or historic, or especially hip—but in all cases different from your workaday routine. They’re also advertising in-town escapes, as when they try to draw married couples in for sexy weekends away from the kids and household responsibilities. This has indeed changed over time. In some eras, hotelkeepers tried to emphasize that hotels offered all the comforts of home: they gave guests personalized attention, tried to make the entire hotel seem like an extended family, and so on—indeed, hoteliers in the nineteenth century would often stand at the head table in their dining room and cut the roast for the guests, thus taking on the symbolic role of the head of a regular household. In other eras, they emphasized the predictability and machine-like efficiency of their operations, featuring anything from a large-capacity steam-driven laundry machine to a modern electric elevator to a corps of dining room waiters who served with military precision.
DG: What makes a hotel glamorous?
Sandoval-Strausz: It could be any of a few things. Many historic hotels are glamorous because of their incredible architecture: some of the most elegant hotels in the country—the Plaza, the Fairmont, the Blackstone—were built about a century ago, at a time when hotel builders spared no expense on elaborate ornamentation and décor. Some recent establishments, like the leading W Hotels locations, offer up-to-the-minute style and the latest in architecture and materials, using a modern minimalist visual vocabulary to dazzle and intrigue. And still others, like La Fonda in Santa Fe or the Peabody in Memphis, simply express the local culture perfectly, expressing confidence in their vernacular heritage and charm.
DG: Do you have a favorite hotel or hotel experience?
Sandoval-Strausz: This takes me back to the initial inspiration for my book. I like just sitting and having a drink in an elegant hotel bar or hotel lobby, watching what people do. They may smile or they may complain, they may look exhausted at the end of a long flight or exhilarated at the prospect of a night on the town, they may be giving a hug to old friends or flirting with someone cute whom they’ve just met. But they’re always up to something interesting, because if they wanted to be boring, they’d have just stayed at home.
To see a Slate slide show of hotel photos, with text by Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, go here.