The Vipp Chimney House in Copenhagen could be mistaken for a Hollywood set. Built inside the skeleton of an old pumping station, the glass-and-steel micro-hotel is scattered with global signifiers of the Scandinavian good life — soft throws, fresh flowers and tall jars of coarse grains. Lean closer, and the effect of unreality is enhanced: almost everything, from the toilet brush to the kitchen sink, is branded with Vipp’s discreet logo — and it’s all for sale.
The Chimney House is one of three hotel-showroom hybrids operated by Vipp, a Danish furniture brand whose core product is kitchen units that start at €25,000. Before the pandemic, wealthy home enthusiasts flew here from all around the world to test-drive the brand’s high-end furniture.
When I meet chief executive Kasper Egelund at the hotel one sweaty afternoon in late August, he launches into an animated explanation of how hotels are the new “catwalk” for design, as he opens the Vipp fridge and hands me a Vipp beer. “I think it’s actually the future,” he says. We raise our — you guessed it — Vipp glasses.
For as long as hotels have filled their rooms with desirable things, inventory managers have puzzled over how — short of glue and nails — to keep hold of them. Now, design brands are turning this hospitality headache to their advantage. Over the past five years or so, “shoppable” hotels have evolved from a relatively rare and often gimmicky novelty into an established part of the landscape.
They range in scale from Muji’s impressive trio of hotels in China and Japan, the first of which opened in 2018, to single-occupancy apartments. Although the global pandemic will slow their spread, as it will all hospitality ventures that rely on people being willing to board an aircraft, the trend looks set to stick.
“It’s the super-high-end version of the fact that Ikea does room sets,” says Antonia Ward, global director of advisory services at the trend-forecasting agency Stylus. But unlike at Ikea, where guests are ultimately funnelled towards a supermarket checkout, designers who open hotels aren’t trying to send you out of the door, bags bulging with tableware. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the shoppable hotel isn’t necessarily meant to be shopped at, explains Ward.
Instead, it’s a way of getting customers to engage with a brand offline. At The Chimney House, Egelund challenges me to find Vipp’s product brochure, which I locate on a bookshelf alongside two dozen hardback art books. He says that any sort of hard-selling in this space would be “offensive” — after all, a night’s stay costs from €1,000.
Shoppable hotels reflect a wider shift in how things are sold. There was a time when only the very privileged might think to inquire if the beautiful vase they passed in the lobby was for sale. A decade spent on social media has accustomed more of us to a world in which everything is clickable and potentially available for purchase. On Instagram, designers, celebrities and those aspiring to influence routinely tag images of their homes with the brands that furnish them, often with direct links to their shops.
“The internet has made us think we can find out all the answers to anything we want,” says Cate Trotter, founder of retail consultancy Insider Trends. “If you see something you like, you should be able to buy it instantly.”
No one exemplifies this shift towards a world where everything — both in person and online — is identifiable and buyable better than the luxury-lifestyle retailer Alex Eagle. Eagle set up her first eponymous shop in London to look like her apartment and often swaps items in and out between her home and retail spaces. She believes that the distinction between commercial and non-commercial space is blurred. “On my Instagram, I’ll sell the shirt off my back and the glasses off my table,” she tells me.
Now she’s renovating The Oakley Court, a hotel with more than 100 rooms in Windsor, west of London. When the refurbishment is completed next year, guests will be able to buy in-house product ranges (glassware, fabrics, linens) as well as the one-off artworks and vintage furniture that will decorate the hotel.
Isn’t Eagle’s team dreading the constant rearranging and redesigning that will come as pieces are sold from under their feet? “We spend our whole lives doing that anyway,” she says.
Around the world, the hotel gift shop is making way for more ambitious unions of retail and hospitality. On a Zoom call from Philadelphia, Shannon Maldonado talks me through the chain of events that took her brand, Yowie, from an ecommerce start-up specialising in colourful ceramics to her current project: a hotel (and co-working space, shop and test kitchen) for which she’s just completed her first successful round of fundraising.
“Airbnb was the gateway,” she says, explaining that travellers are now accustomed to what the industry calls “invisible service”, where there is no in-person check-in or other frills traditionally seen as markers of quality. It’s a trend that has opened up the hotel market to designers who can make rooms feel luxurious but don’t want to sink thousands into graduates of a Swiss hospitality school.
Maldonado points out that it’s also a model that looks set to grow in popularity as the world makes a cautious post-pandemic return to travel: “I can just punch [a code] in a keypad, wash my hands and I’m in the room,” she says.
The Yowie hotel won’t open until 2021 but Maldonado already has a good sense of what she wants to have for sale in its six to eight rooms: linens, artworks, decorative objects and even the paint on the walls — colour, particularly breezy yellow accents, is key to the brand’s visual identity.
She plans to cap the number of items for sale at somewhere between 50 and 70 per cent: the last thing she wants is for people to feel “like they’re in a commercial or that scene from Fight Club”, she says. She is referring to the early sequence in the 1999 film in which the narrator’s home appears superimposed with the catalogue prices of everything in it.
The Fight Club scene is intended to show how an insatiable hunger to consume is damaging our perception of the world around us. Maldonado is, of course, hoping Yowie won’t feel like that. “You come in and you hang out with us. And then you’re like, ‘Oh, you know what, I actually do like that cup over there,’” she says of the brand’s softly-softly sales approach. “I jokingly tell people, ‘We want to be very insidious in your lives.’”
Over email, Beks Opperman lays out a similar philosophy. She and Stephen Kenn, her husband, operate the Stephen Kenn Loft, a single-occupancy apartment in Los Angeles, which became their young design studio’s only showroom when it opened last year.
Opperman tells me how she and her husband were inspired to create “a single vision for a good life” after visiting a townhouse in Antwerp with a restaurant, store and apartment across its three floors.
At the Stephen Kenn Loft, guests are welcomed with touches such as tea from the couple’s trips to Japan. During their stay, they can test out furniture, including three of the brand’s most popular sofas (they start at $6,500), as well as products from several partner brands. A night’s stay costs $500, which is reimbursed if you go on to buy furniture from the studio — a policy also adopted by Vipp. This gives a sense of the hefty sums that many end up spending.
Back in Copenhagen, Egelund washes up our glasses and tells me how the popularity of the Vipp hotels has led him to revamp the brand’s flagship showroom to look like a home. He encourages me to stop by while I’m in town.
“Do you have a Vipp product at home?” he asks. I shake my head.
There are no price tags here, but the cost of everything is emblazoned across my eyeballs: Vipp washing-up brush, just under £50. Vipp soap dispenser, just over £100. It is, I think to myself, just a little bit like the scene in Fight Club after all.
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