The Grand Budapest Hotel does not exist. And yet it might well be the greatest single influence on contemporary hotel design over the past decade.
In the 2014 movie, writer and director Wes Anderson creates a world that is a complex cocktail of faded fin-de-siècle grandeur, communist-era clunkiness and a vaguely remembered idea of luxury from a former age. There is a sadness at the loss of this world to a globally branded corporate homogeneity. Yet despite the saudade, nostalgia and critique of the contemporary implicit in it, Anderson’s vision has itself become a powerful brand.
From Chelsea to Chengdu, Dubrovnik to Hong Kong, hotels, bars and restaurants are finding themselves suddenly dressed up in the whimsical Anderson mode of pastels, framed symmetrical views, faux-fin-de-siècle fittings and the knowing period touches of those characteristic movie sets. You can walk into the restaurants of The Ned or The Bloomsbury in London, the atrium of The Beekman in New York or the Pulitzer in Amsterdam and immediately feel the tingle of the familiar. There is even a small chain, the Paris-based Experimental Group of hotels, which seems to be at least partly defined by an adherence to Anderson’s aesthetics.
In all of these, there are views framed in that familiar manner; centred, focused, immaculately symmetrical. There is furniture that is somehow simultaneously contemporary and yet vaguely Art Deco. There is the lighting, the staff uniforms, the self-consciously quirky selection of antiques, antlers and oil paintings. Take a look, for instance, at the Experimental Chalet, which opened late last year in Verbier, Switzerland. The Grand Budapest’s distinctive reception desk with its twin lamps placed symmetrically on top of its counter and the wall of pigeonholes for keys and messages, well here they are again, even appearing in a similar shade of red. The physical keys, part of Anderson’s world of anachronistic authenticity, is clearly the image the Experimental Group wants to project — personal, traditional, historic. Each pigeonhole tells its stories. Ironically a digital key card contains many more accurate details inscribed on its data strip — times entered and exited and so on — yet it is the key with its hanging tassel that seems to hold the real story.
Or take a look at their beds with their round-cornered headboards, then flip to the staff bedrooms at the Grand Budapest Hotel. There they are, not so much as luxury but rather as quirky back-of-house detail.
You might divine the Anderson look in the Moxy Chelsea hotel with its marble pâtisserie counter, glass cake display case and maroon stools. And you might wonder, “well what if Wes Anderson designed a real café?”
Of course, he has. If you visit the Prada Foundation in Milan you can dine in the real Wes World, a slick homage to a mid-century fantasy of Italian modernity which still manages to look as if it was somehow unreal, a set. The Bar Luce, with its bon-bon-pink terrazzo floor, wood panelling, vintage pinball machines, trompe-l’oeil wallpaper, globe lights and vinyl upholstered booths, is a nostalgic and compelling blend of Americana and MiIanese chic. With its impossibly good-looking baristas in their white jackets it is camp, kitsch, weirdly elegant and, critically, already familiar. It is the kind of place you might think of as a remarkable survival from a golden era — like London’s Bar Italia or the great railway station dining rooms — if it wasn’t actually brand-new.
The question then is why, exactly, would this fictional hotel have become the defining influence in an entire industry? The first and most important reason is the construction of a fantasy and the conjuring of a half-remembered dream. We have all been in grand hotels which, though they now appeared a little shabby, must have seen some real history. We can imagine the little dramas, the events, the weddings and meetings, the political changes and the myriad moments of joy that must have taken place within those walls, a residual memory embodied in the fabric. The grand hotel becomes a repository and a stable, tangible place in a fast-changing and increasingly digital world.
When a designer approaches a hotel, often a blank canvas as it is either a new building or a conversion from another use, there is a need to create a narrative, a notion that this is a real place with a back-story. The design becomes the branding and the branding is, in turn, the story, a confection which allows the hotelier to play with the fantasy of authenticity.
There was a time when hotels were ruthlessly globalised, when homogeneity was the target, like getting the same burger in any branch of McDonald’s. The backlash saw the reinvention and rejuvenation of the boutique hotel, a celebration of the place and its individuality. A film-maker is charged with the same task; the creation of a memorable place that can persuade an audience of its authenticity and convince not only as a background for the narrative but, in the cases of the best films, arguably, as a character in its own right. Think of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the Bates Motel in Psycho or the Tokyo Park Hyatt in Lost in Translation, these hotels and motels are as deeply implicated in the movie memories as the characters on screen.
For the Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson and his production designer Adam Stockhausen used an amalgam of real places and models spiced up with memories and impressions of actual hotels. The atrium and lobby scenes were shot in a disused department store in Görlitz, a town in the far east of Germany, right on the Polish border and close to the Czech Republic too, a kind of Mitteleuropa idyll. That location was everything. It enabled the director to locate his fictional country of Zubrowka in the mountains and in a setting which yo-yo’d between decadence, democracy, war and dictatorship, just as did Görlitz itself.
Although the scenes were filmed in a real (albeit dressed-up) interior — with its stained-glass roof and exquisite marble and faience surfaces, they were coloured by the memories of very real central European hotels, most notably the stunning Grand Hotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary and the eccentrically Art Nouveau Gellert Hotel in Budapest, two exotic fin-de-siècle confections with wonderful baths.
Both grand hotels and films are able to construct whole worlds, convincing alternate realities. Anderson’s obsessive attention to detail does what a good hotel can do. He famously created a currency for Zubrowka, the fonts for telegrams and newspapers (the articles in which he actually wrote himself), the hotel signage, the packaging for cakes and so much more. A hotel convinces through its attention to detail, as does a film, becoming a microcosm of a better life. It is a formula that has proved wildly popular. In London, restaurateurs Corbin and King opened Fischer’s in 2014 (the year Grand Budapest was released), creating a Viennese café that looks a fixture of decades though in fact it was a modern Italian restaurant only months earlier.
Designer Martin Brudnizki has been the king of subtly Andersonian effects. From The Beekman in New York to Baur’s in Zurich, London’s Coral Room and Aquavit, the central European glamour vibe hangs heavy over his elaborate and elegant rooms.
Hotels, like restaurants, aim to become institutions, fixtures in the social scene. Grand hotels were always a part of the cityscape, but that identity is now communicated not only through the postcards sold in the lobby or the images in a travel brochure but through the ubiquitous medium of social media. Anderson’s visual sensibility turns out to be perfect for the Insta age. The popular Insta account @accidentallywesanderson and a similar hashtag are filled with people posting images of unconsciously Andersonian interiors, but “deliberate Wes Anderson” should be another. The director’s way of framing the world, the meticulous symmetry, that palette of 1950s pistachio and strawberry gelato, the careful placement of lamps and chairs, the eclectic and elaborate (but symmetrical) architecture seen against snowy mountains or aquamarine seas, the vivid pinks and odd portraits on provincial hotel walls have all become part of a language we can buy into, a code we understand.
It’s a look that has saturated modern travel. You can go to the Budapest Café in Chengdu or the Breadway Bakery in Odessa and immerse yourself in bubblegum pastel pink. You might stay at The Ned in London or have a coffee at The Beekman in New York, both of which revolve around exactly the kind of grand atrium Anderson chose in Görlitz and both of which feature moments of cloying Budapest-ish charm. You might even stay at the Jaffa Hotel, a new hotel designed by the renowned minimalist John Pawson, and find yourself astonished that his familiar walls of white have given way to the nut-and-nougat upholstery of the lounge furniture. Or you might find yourself drowning in the tidal wave of Wes Pink at India Mahdavi’s Gallery at Sketch. You might dine beneath the endless arches of the John Anthony Hong Kong, with its chichi turquoise take on the Grand Budapest aesthetic, or drink at Los Angeles’ lovely Apotheke Cocktail Bar where the pigeonholes are filled with books and bottles rather than keys, but the meaning remains the same.
And finally you might arrive back in central Europe at the Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik and find that Anderson has traversed the world and returned to where it all started, in a grand fin-de-siècle structure run by a brand that was once synonymous with globalised anonymity and has now joined in the game, its original arches and loggias looking somehow more Wes than Wes himself.
The downside is the same as that of the films. After a while, you might begin to tire of the carefully constructed artifice. A film is fleeting, a place more permanent. But what is perhaps most intriguing about the artifice of the Grand Budapest Hotel is that its story begins and ends not in its glamorous heyday but in its twilight as an implied communist-era institution.
It is a fantasy that contains the intimation of its own downfall but also the glorious continuity of a place that might mean something different to each generation. Anderson captured not only the glamour but the grit, the hotel as both the most real and the most confected place possible. And he has been rewarded by becoming ubiquitous.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s design critic