In her white, kimono-style top and black, skinny skirt, the waitress dips at the waist, offering a small geisha smile, to place The Gospel AccordingTo Drink, Vol. 1, on the table.
Up until that moment, the design voodoo of the Toronto Shangri-La Hotel's public space was working its magic with remarkable subtlety. This is the new Lobby Life that hotels around the world are trying to encourage, not just to monetize their ground-floor space, once a dead zone where people sat zombie-like, gazing into the middle distance, to wait for a taxi or a friend, but also to respond to the way technology and domestic design trends have changed our lives.
The Gospel gimmick is a heavy-handed departure – a cardboard sleeve holding four booklets of drinks menus. (Spirits, anyone?) It is meant to underscore the feeling that you're sitting in a living room and someone just brought your favourite reading material from the library.
But without any such nudge, nudge, wink, wink, I am already deep in the gorgeous delusion that I'm the guest of a very cool host with an impressive, varied list of friends. The sightlines of the lobby at the Shangri-La, which opened in September, allow for everyone to participate. No hiding behind giant palm trees here. An older gentleman sits on his own, affluent and cufflinked, perusing the scene with serene detachment, drink in one hand, global ease emanating from him like the scent of a delicate, expensive cologne. A fiftyish man comes up to greet the singer at the grand piano (Mr. Dreadlocks in a tailored suit) like a long, lost friend, which he seems to be – from last week, anyway. "I've brought my Swiss friends," the man announces, pointing to a small gathering in a far corner near the long, sleek fireplace. They raise their wineglasses to Mr. Dreadlocks in response.
There are the expected women in their 20s and 30s, skinny and hair-flipping, dressed in black second skins and teetering heels, carrying handbags that look more substantial than they are. Their male companions are invariably older by a decade or two.
They clink martini glasses.
Some people sit on their own, having an intense relationship with their iPhones and iPads, no longer feeling embarrassed or awkward as a solo cocktail sipper or diner in a public space. Others look as though they're sealing business deals, or hoping to. But it's not just global citizens who feel comfortable at this party in a new urban space, a bubble of calm and aromatherapy, literally, sealed off from the urban traffic chaos, seen through ceiling-to-floor glass walls. Check out the people at the next table: an overweight woman in a big, bad sweater; a man in a baseball cap and neglected beard, his friend in a T-shirt and scruffy jeans. They could have been disgorged from the mouth of a touring aluminium bus.
It's a hybrid crowd in a hybrid space, a little bit of everything all at once; mashup Internet culture come to life. "We call lobbies 'third places,' a term coined by Starbucks, a place between work and home," says Gordon Mackay, creative partner and architect at Mackay/Wong Strategic Design in Toronto, which handles a number of hotel chains, including Sheraton, Delta, Radisson and Hilton. The vital lobby trend is not just for five-star hotels, he says, calling it a "revolution" in the way the hospitality industry is responding to changes in how people live.
"It's Swiss Army-knife design, multifunctional," he says, adding that it is driven in part by the design aesthetic of private homes, where dinner is often eaten in a casual setting, at a bar area in an open-concept kitchen, rather than in a dining room.
Of course, hospitality managers have realized that Lobby Life not only helps generate revenue but also reinforces the impression that their hotel is a busy, successful place. It becomes a destination in itself, not just for guests staying overnight.
Glenn Pushelberg, partner of world-renowned design team Yabu Pushelberg that works for the Four Seasons and other luxury hotels around the world, describes the new design strategy for lobbies as "breaking down barriers." The bar is the restaurant is the lobby is the waiting area is the check-in counter, over there against the wall. There's little separation between where people eat or drink or work or socialize, and design should reflect that, he says. "Luxury is not about gilding the lily, it's about the quality of the space, in which you can do what suits you," Pushelberg says.
Lobbies were grand social places in the historic hotels built around the turn of the 20th century, when the concept of leisure travel came into fashion with the proliferation of railways, ships and automobiles. Back then, the lobby was for a select club, a living room away from home for those who could afford to grace it. As travel democratized, the lobby was largely ignored as a public space, Pushelberg says. He credits Ian Schrager, the American hotelier and property developer (and former co-owner of Studio 54), with pioneering the current "lobby socializing" trend in the eighties in his New York boutique hotels such as Morgans and the Paramount Hotel.
I look up from the table where my husband and I are sitting in the Shangri-La lobby. It's somewhere inbetween restaurant and coffee-table height, suitable to eat food on and to work at. Design is manipulation on some level. We feel like we're sitting in an indoor piazza, as private as we want to be together – a hotel lobby always carries the suggestion of sex and romance with its away-fromhome intimacy – or as public.
"Look, that's Blythe Danner," he says, indicating a blond woman seated with a friend in the middle of the room.
"No." I look over. "Well, maybe yes." The profile is similar. The hair. Another glimpse. "No."
"It could be," he teases.
And that's all that matters.