The off switch | Bad design hotels


Lights turn on. Lights turn off. Why do the most luxurious of hotels go out of their way to make the simplest of things so very, very difficult?

The Murano Urban Resort, Paris

I’ve seen some very peculiar things in hotels. I recall my state of bewilderment on discovering what appeared to be a room service sign with “FIRE!” in bold type on one side at Carton House in Kildare. This was, I gathered from the instructions on the bottom, designed to hang on your doorknob to alert passing staff should you be disabled and your room ablaze. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were chair-bound and had made it to the door to change the “do not disturb” as flames licked at my tyres, I’d probably keep on wheeling. Peculiar indeed.

More than safety instructions of dubious effectiveness, though, or even breakfast rooms that close just as I like to get out of bed at the weekend, the one thing that nonplusses me more than anything else in hotels is the lighting.

One of my favourite hotels in the world is the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt in Buenos Aires. It manages to pull off a near impossible trick of balancing arch modernity with Maggie-Smith-on-crystal-meth grande dame attitude.  Every time I arrive at the Palacio Duhau I experience a Recoleta frisson of bygone glamour and Dior-clad crypto-fascists. I’d also quite like my house to look like one of the bedrooms. They’re phenomenal. And yet… the lighting design in each of them is enough to drive you to insanity.

The first time I stayed, I checked into a room in the new-build block, where the designers have thought of, and incorporated, just about everything: the bathrooms offer a sumptuous, marble-clad fantasia that would thrill the most luxury oriented of water sports enthusiasts, the windows in the Penthouse overlooking the main street are bulletproof, and you’d need a week to work out which buttons to press to make the curtains open. There are a zillion mood settings for the lights, and heavy-duty blackout blinds that make you feel profoundly Pharoah-like when you sit up, bolt awake with jet lag, at 5am.

The last time I was at the Palacio Duhau, I enjoyed one of those quintessentially Porteño long nights that kicks off with cocktails at Osaka and ends up at the milonga beneath the Armenian Cultural Centre in Palermo. I stumbled home in the early hours, did a circuit of the room to kill all the lights and sank into a coma. Now, copious amounts of Fernet Branca and Coke is always a ghastly idea – the former will give you the kind of headache that might flag up a cerebral haemorrhage, while the malted battery acid that you mixed it with will dehydrate you to the point of dust. You’ll also have to get up around an hour after you went to bed to go the toilet. 59 minutes after bedding down, I fumbled for something that might be a light switch from beneath the covers. Then I fumbled some more, lurking, shuffling, arms outstretched. No luck, no light: those blackout blinds were military-grade in their effectiveness.

I felt my way to the bathroom via a somewhat compromised recollection of its layout and dimensions. I knew it was vast, so finding evidence of a towel rack was no comfort, and served as no real clue as to how far the toilet actually might be. And so it went on, and on, until the anxiety was unbearable. The mission was ultimately accomplished without disgrace, but it was a poor show and fairly nightmarish. And, as if for comic effect, all of the reading lights came on of their own accord an hour later, just as the migraine had kicked in, and the bottom of a birdcage had materialised in my mouth.

Very useful, one imagines, if you wanted to take acid and spend your whole time in bed channelling Mick Jagger in Performance.

Then there was a stay at the Murano Urban Resort in Paris, where everything is impossibly futuristic, in some cases, literally: the fingerprint-recognition door mechanisms never work for me, or anyone I know who has stayed there. Inside your room, daylight balanced light doesn’t seem an option, although you can programme all of the artfully inset bulbs to change colour every few seconds. Very useful, one imagines, if you wanted to take acid and spend your whole time in bed channelling Mick Jagger in Performance. I once stayed at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, where every walk from lift to bedroom built up the most extraordinary and explosive static charge, so that I left with a morbid fear of doorknobs. So it was with the Murano: I still have an urge to smash any lava lamp on sight. Bad design hotels.

I loathe complex lighting pads, touch-screen technology and theatrical mood settings. Like many people, most of my stays in hotels are for two or three nights. Who has the time to get cosy with HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and negotiate the best of a hundred or so lighting arrangements? I just want the option of full, bright, overhead lighting (when packing) and to have a few lamps – including one beside the bed suitable for reading by – that I can turn off at the flick of one switch. More than anything, I don’t want to have to remove the bedcovers, squeeze my feet into a pair of always-too-small disposable bedroom slippers and turn off that last lamp in the far corner. I stayed at the Nines in Portland the week it opened a few years ago and spent an hour trying to work out how to turn the light off above the minibar. Maintenance investigated while I was in my bathrobe – TV off, staring at the ceiling, tired beyond entertainment. After much head-scratching, they announced that no switch had actually been wired up. The solution: they unscrewed the offending bulb and left.

At the start of this year I travelled to Malaysia, spending a weekend en route at the Hotel Fort Canning in Singapore, where the rooms have myriad, tricky-to-turn-off mood lighting settings (and where you aren’t aware that you’re visible from the garden while using the toilet). I whinged endlessly: “why can’t there just be ONE big red switch beside the bed, marked ‘OFF’?” A week later, at the Majestic, in the ancient seaside city of Malacca on the south coast, I was shown around my room. As I always do, I asked what the quickest way to turn off all the lights in the room might be. The hotel employee pointed to a big red button labelled “POWER OFF”, right beside the bed. “That would be here, sir,” he said. I literally applauded.