NEW YORK- As I opened the door, my first thought was, “Sweet mother of Mark Hamill! How did I wind up in Buck Rogers’s hotel room?”
The futuristic pod was tiny, but every inch had a purpose. A frosted glass capsule-shaped bathroom along one wall glowed cool blue while a massive bed filled the back of the room. The message on the bedside Samsung tablet read “citizenM says: Welcome citizen Christopher.”
I snatched up the “mood pad” that welcomed me and started playing. I changed the digital art on the wall multiple times, scrolled through curated playlists by DJs from Amsterdam, Brussels, London, and Paris, and then switched the lighting mode from “Romance” to “Business” to “Party.” If I were still the rambunctious little jackanapes I once was, I would have stayed in the room and played astronaut all day.
I plopped down on the soft bed and marveled at how my 170-square-foot room at the recently-opened citizenM felt oddly spacious (the average US hotel room is 325 square feet).
This new breed of petite hotel, dubbed micro hotels, is designed for the way we travel today. Accordingly, rooms have shrunk. If you’re in New York, you don’t want to spend your day lollygagging about your hotel room, you want to people watch and eat macaroons in the semi-fresh Manhattan air. Rooms at hotels such asYotel, which will open an outpost in Boston’s Innovation District next year, are generally under 200-square-feet. In many cases, the emphasis in these hotels is design and fashionable common spaces. Think of it this way: Your hotel room is your bedroom, common areas are your living room and kitchen. Only in this case, your living room is filled with sleek Germans and couples bickering over which Broadway show to see.
The lobby of citizenM (M for mobility) has 26-foot ceilings dripping with George Nelson lighting pendants, Swiss furniture from Vitra, and contemporary art from Julian Opie, Andy Warhol, and David LaChapelle. There’s a 24-hour cafeteria, an incredible roof deck, and, naturally, a killer lobby bar where one traveler asked me to recommend the best sex clubs in New York, and another asked the best place to buy skinny jeans. Evidently I look like a sex-crazed hipster.
London-based Yotel and Amsterdam-based citizenM focus on automation. You check-in through a machine. No lines. Most famously, the Yotel in New York features a giant robotic arm that hoists luggage in and out of storage for guests. When a pair of technologically unsavvy guests held up the line because they couldn’t figure out how to retrieve their luggage, I had fantasies of the robotic arm crashing through its glass encasement and gently slapping some sense into them.
Yotel opened in 2011, and although it’s well-designed, it lacked the pizzazz, playfulness, and Dutch design of citizenM. The coolest feature of my Yotel room was a sofa that shifted into a bed at the flick of a switch. I pretended to be James Bond and lowered the bed while hitting the switch to change the lighting to glowing purple. Unfortunately there was no switch to cue a Dame Shirley Bassey soundtrack or call Miss Moneypenny.
The best-known of the micro hotel chains in New York are Pod 39 and Pod 51. The numbers correspond to the addresses. I stayed at Pod 51 last winter, and when I arrived in the room, I thought I had been sentenced to a cell at Litchfield State Penitentiary. It felt cold and sterile. I searched the room for an orange jump suit and made sure Crazy Eyes wasn’t lurking in the shower. I had read so many decent reviews of Pod on TripAdvisor that I thought I must have been in the wrong state of mind. The chain is so popular that it’s expanding across the river to Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
So on a warm, sunny day in June, I tried Pod 39. The dreary paneled walls said “Welcome to the 1970s, we’ve missed you. Have you seen our friend, avocado dishwasher?” The comforter was scratchy, and two people could not move in the room at the same time without butting heads like angry mountain goats. Worse, the bathroom lacked any kind of privacy.
The micro hotel is nothing new. They’re not uncommon at airports in Europe, and are downright spacious compared with the Japanese capsule hotels that provide resting platforms only slightly bigger than a coffin.
“Unlike baby boomers, who still tend to spend a lot of time in a guest room, millennials spend much less time in guest rooms and would rather be in the lobby, assuming that the lobby has high speed internet access and a lot of activity,” said Bjorn Hanson, a dean and professor in New York University’s hospitality and tourism program. “Therefore the guest room doesn’t need to have a side chair, the desk doesn’t need to be as large, and because of flat-screen TVs, there’s no more need for a large armoire.”
One of the first hotels in New York to focus on design details while shrinking room size was the Jane in the West Village. The smallest room size here is a lilliputian 50 feet and bathrooms are posh, but communal. Hotelier Sean MacPherson designed the rooms in the one-time flop house to look like luxury cabins in boats or trains. It adds a bit of romance and also helps you forget that you’re staying in a room smaller than Joan Rivers’s shoe closet.
“Provided that people understood what they were getting into, I was just surprised how accepting of it everyone was,” MacPherson said. “I think that they kind of figured it out, with a $100 room, there had to be something to it. We tried to make it as clear as possible. I wanted to do this thing where it’s small, but it’s all done in high-end details: marble, brass, and high-end fabrics.”
His latest, The Marlton Hotel, is a different kind of micro hotel. The smallest room is 100 square feet, and most average about 150 square feet. The design here is not sleek and futuristic. The rooms feel like posh little jewel boxes filled with traditional mouldings and playful light fixtures. Additionally, the Marlton currently has the most buzzed about and fashionable bar scene in New York.
“A new fashion club house has emerged,” trumpeted The New York Times of the Marlton’s lobby scene.
The club house was a bit quiet the night I visited. For a moment I thought I had spotted former Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley holding court before I realized it was just a woman in a brocade caftan.
After the luxury of the Marlton, I was hesitant to head back to Pod 39, but I needed to see more of the hotel’s communal space. I was floored when I reached the roof deck and saw a bar scene that looked as if it belonged in the backyard of an Italian villa. It was so hopping I couldn’t find a place to stand.
It all made sense. Rather than being sentenced to spend time in their wood-paneled cells, the young guests at Pod wanted their freedom, and they found it in a rooftop escape with paneling replaced by prosecco, an exhuberant pop soundtrack, and soft outdoor lighting. The micro hotel’s payoff: the macro communal party.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.