High-Design Hotels

M&C profiles six extraordinary properties that set a new standard for style

San Antonios Hotel Emma

From hops to hospitality: San Antonio's Hotel Emma (pictured) is a beautiful reincarnation of an 1880s brewery.

The blood sport that has hotels competing with each other for customers grows ever more intense, as brands throw every ounce of muscle into the game in an all-out effort to distinguish themselves from the pack. In the process, they are pushing the boundary on design, incorporating elements like more communal places in lobbies, super-cool rooftop bars, myriad tech-savvy features, craft cocktails and even the provision of bicycles to help guests explore the surrounding communities.

These six properties, handpicked by M&C editors, get our vote for standout designs that make you want to check in and never leave.

Hotel Emma, San Antonio

Move over Alamo, San Antonio's got a new attraction that's also memorable. Housed in the former Pearl Brewery that dates from the 1880s, the 146-room Hotel Emma masterfully blends the building's historical details with modern conveniences to create a distinctive industrial-chic aesthetic that's become a standout on the city's riverfront.

The hotel's architects incorporated as much of the brewery's original features -- like stonework and tiles, vaulted ceilings and exposed steel window frames -- to create an immediate sense of place. Brew tanks have been converted into a seating area; a bottle-capping machine has been transformed into a chandelier; and the hotel's hip Larder market, where locals come to indulge in gourmet Texas-made foods along with house-butchered meats and outrageous salads, is housed in the building's former cellar. (There's even a "culinary concierge" on duty.)

Welcome margaritas are served in the wood-paneled library, with its collection of volumes of local lore curated by San Antonio writer/historian Sherry Kafka Wagner. Need more convincing? Guest rooms have an Ice Box (aka a high-end minibar) loaded with seasonal local Texan treats and all the fixings for a craft-your-own margarita.

MaMa Shelter, Los Angeles

A French-based boutique chain, Mama Shelter is owned by the Trigano family, which founded the Club Med resort brand in 1950 and opened this 70-room beauty in a vintage 1930s building in the middle of Hollywood in 2015.

The lobby features an oversize foosball table, comfy couches, a fireplace covered with sticky notes, and vending machines loaded with gum balls and granola. Look up at the chalk ceiling, dubbed the Sistine Chapel of Hollywood by locals: Its surface is inscribed and decorated with heartfelt toasts to mothers everywhere by local artists.

The guest rooms are playfully appointed with Darth Vader lamps, Bert and Ernie headboard reading lights, and subway tiles, with old Hollywood scripts and vintage surfing magazines on hand to curl up with.

The on-site restaurant's open-kitchen design features invitingly rustic wooden communal tables and a menu inspired by Mexicana-Mediterranean cooking. A trendy rooftop, complete with a bar and gym, is decked out with colorful lounge chairs and a screen projector with a strung-up sheet to facilitate impromptu movie nights.

The Camby, Autograph Collection, Phoenix

Housed in the former Ritz-Carlton, Phoenix, this cool, contemporary newcomer, a member of Marriott's Autograph Collection, made its debut in December 2015.

In the minimalist lobby, guests can check in quickly via smart tablets that send a room key directly to their smartphone. For those still hankering for a human touch, traditional check-in remains available.

The hotel's moniker is a nod to Camelback Mountain, just 23 miles to the east and visible from many of the 277 guest rooms, which have copper ceilings and are adorned with Southwestern rugs and throw pillows.

On-site are two super-sleek dining outlets -- the speakeasy-style Bees Knees cocktail bar, and Artizen, Crafted American Kitchen & Bar, presided over by chef Dushyant Singh, who was named the 2016 Best Upcoming Chef by the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame.  Don't skip a visit to the rooftop pool, complete with cabanas and ping-pong tables for entertainment.

Among the property's 20,000 square feet of meeting space are some neat design twists, such as the Back Office, a private venue with a boardroom table that doubles as a pool table, and a shuffleboard game that becomes a buffet table.

The Hewing Hotel, Minneapolis

The Hewing Hotel, Minneapolis
Just about every item, from furniture to wallpaper and light fixtures, was locally designed and made for this new 124-room boutique hotel housed in the Jackson Building, a 119-year-old former showroom for farm equipment just outside Minneapolis' downtown.

Hanging, hand-blown glass raindrops
adorn the Hewing Hotel.
Hanging, hand-blown glass raindrops adorn the Hewing Hotel.

The Hewing's design is warm and comfortable, incorporating much of the building's original exposed red brick, woodwork and large windows. New decorative details include purple hand-blown glass raindrops hanging from the central atrium's ceiling -- a nod to the musician Prince, who died while the glass artist was creating the piece for the hotel. Similarly whimsical, each guest room has a small painted antler sitting on a shelf, while hanging in each bathroom is a framed ax, all redolent of Minnesota's lumber-mill history.

For meetings, 9,000 square feet are spread over several venues. The basement has a fitness center and a yoga studio, and the rooftop, in true Minnesotan style, features a sauna and a small pool that converts into a hot tub in the colder months. The menu at the in-house  restaurant, Tullibee, pays props to the state's Scandinavian roots, featuring produce by regional farmers and fish caught in the state's many lakes.

The Durham Hotel, Durham, N.C.

AA stylish restoration of the former Home Savings Bank by Los Angeles-based Commune Design has transformed this mid-20th-century building into an explosion of color, beginning with its gold- and white-striped facade.

At the Durham Hotel in North Carolina,
a mid-20th century ethos governs
the lobby design.
At the Durham Hotel in North Carolina, a mid-20th century ethos governs the lobby design.

Mad Men could have been staged in the lobby, outfitted with red and cream carpeting, gold pendant lamps and leather couches. Unexpected touches recall the 53-room hotel's Southern roots, like bedside lip balm from Burt's Bees, a local company, and a minibar stocked with noshes from local purveyors.

Weekly yoga classes are offered on the property's 3,000-square foot rooftop, which doubles as private event space. James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing overseas two in-house dining outlets, where seasonal menus are inspired by local fare such as North Carolina blue crab, crispy pig ears and field peas.

The Troubadour Hotel, New Orleans

It opened its doors this past December, but already this 184-room newcomer has become a lively addition to the renaissance taking place in New Orleans' Central Business District. A member of San Francisco-based Joie de Vivre Hotels, the property is housed in the landmark Rault Building, which has a spot on the city's National Register of Historic Places.

The rooftop Monkey Board bar
at the Troubadour Hotel
The rooftop Monkey Board bar at the Troubadour Hotel

The Troubadour's casual contemporary design features quirky conversation starters, like the interactive art display in the lobby that looks like a guitar fret board, next to a floating staircase leading to a quiet lounge area on the second floor. Guest rooms add some literary flavor by sporting streetcar signs emblazoned with the name Desire, à la Tennessee Williams.

Two meeting rooms, dubbed Snifter and Highball, offer a combined meeting space of 836 square feet. Groups can kick the party up a notch at the Monkey Board, a fun outdoor rooftop bar, which features local food-truck favorites, comfy couches and a stunning 360-degree view of the city.