Berlin has become a center for modern art and design, and hotels are also getting in the game, blurring the boundaries between museums and hotels.
The Castle Room is just the beginning
The choices are startling: The upside-down room with furniture on the ceiling and a bed nestled among floorboards; the "freedom" room resembling a prison cell, with a bed on chains, a toilet next to it and a hole in the wall to the world outside; or the "mirror" room, shaped like a diamond and glittering with dozens of mirrors that puts one inside a life-size kaleidoscope.
In Lars Stroschen's Propeller Island City Lodge in Berlin's Kürfurstendamm area, the 30 individually designed rooms don't come equipped with a television or mini-bar -- just a concept and an instruction manual.
Attracting big and small
Long before the Berlin Wall fell, the city had been a magnet for artists by offering cheap rents, sanctuary from compulsory military service and a well-developed alternative scene.
As a result, art and design have flourished in the German capital. The city attracts big names, such as architects Daniel Libeskind and Norman Foster, and won the right to host MOMA's treasures last year over Paris and London when the New York City museum needed to renovate. It also lures the lesser-known artisans, working in small living spaces, trying to realize big dreams.
A different perspective
Tourism is thriving in Berlin, and many new upscale hotels have opened their doors to accommodate an increasing number of visitors over the past five years. So it's no surprise that the arts and hospitality industry should collide, first in design hotels and later in art hotels.
Living in a work of art
Design hotels, a trend that began in the late 1980s, have been popping up in Berlin for the past decade. The latest buzz is over Q! Hotel, which opened last year and won Travel and Leisure’s Design Award last month. It's the creation of well-known Berlin-based architecture firm Graft, which designed Brad Pitt’s studio and guest house. One of the world’s largest associations representing these so-called boutique hotels, Design Hotels, is also based in Berlin, with more than 140 members worldwide.
Usually, design hotels have architecturally consistent exteriors and interiors created by experienced well-known designers and hoteliers. They can have quirks, too: Q! has bathtubs attached to beds. But the idiosyncrasies are not usually an invitation to view every room as if each were a part of an art exhibit.
Reception at Berlin's Q! Hotel
"Design hotels are catering to a very special traveler, looking for style, sophistication and fun," said Lars Bork, who has worked in such design hotels and is currently in charge of art and design at Q!. "Berlin is a natural magnet for unusual spaces."
He said that every flower, every pillow, every item in the mini-bar is chosen with care in order to sustain the hotel's concept and meet guests' needs, because these places are, above all, guest-centered, with art and design integrated into a concept of hospitality.
But he shook his head with a smile when talking about Propeller Island. "That is spectacular," he remarked.
That is a response Stroschen likes. He wants reaction to his fantasies-turned-into reality, which essentially is what an art hotel is: the vision of individuals realized.
"The rooms are designed and constructed without compromise, varying from the tame to the extreme, and are well able to more or less alter your perspective of reality," he said. "Besides, normal rooms would have been too boring."
Unique is an understatement. Here, it is possible to sleep in a coffin, in a circular rotating bed, in one that seems to fly because of a slanted floor or in a cage. The rooms may be completely orange or green leather or blue or even change color at the flip of a switch. Toilets sometimes are inside a room, or encased in colored-glass houses or even inside wardrobes.
And like a museum, many features come with an admonition: Don’t touch.
A flying bed
Comfort takes a back seat to art
There are three other art hotels in Berlin: Art'otel, which is filled with the work of painter Georg Baselitz; Künstlerheim Luise, whose 33 rooms were each decorated by a different artist; and Pension mitArt, which is full of art and connected to a gallery.
All try to provide comfort and relaxation for guests. For example, at Propeller Island, each room has a specially built stereo with six channels featuring "sonic" sculptures, specially made music such as animal sounds, electronic music or the ocean. A breakfast room-cum-tropical forest soothes one into the morning with tropical plants, soft rain and animal sounds along with bread and juice. But ultimately, the priority of art hotels such as Stroschen's island is this: to give guests a chance to live "in a work of art."
A long road
A realized vision
Stroschen a painter, photographer and musician, began small. In the mid-1990s, he renovated two rooms in his apartment and began renting them out as a way to fund his music studio, in which he creates experimental electronic music. Later, in 1998, he bought an old pension in his building: he wanted to enlarge in order to hire staff, after the project created so much work that it distracted him from his music.
But it wasn't all smooth sailing for Propeller Island, named after a mythical atoll in a Jules Verne novel, which travels with its inhabitants. His business partner and architect -- and later German building laws -- were obstacles to be surmounted on his way to hanging beds on beams or creating a room that was a labyrinth. For five years he fashioned handmade objects out of junk for rooms built one at a time.
Two years ago, he finished the last room, proud that he succeeded when most thought he would fail. Instead, he just bought the store on the ground floor of the multi-story building -- for a gallery he plans to open.
"Most people doubted it would work," he said. "And now even real architects and hoteliers visit."