Words William Wiles
“The best surprise is no surprise” was Holiday Inn’s slogan in the 1970s – the hotel company has built a global empire on the back of a simple policy of providing neutral, insipid spaces that will not challenge or threaten consumers in any way. So when its parent corporation, Intercontinental Hotels Group, announced in October that it is to spend £30m relaunching the brand, it wasn’t a design story. Holiday Inn franchisees will spend $1billion redesigning and refitting half a million rooms, the largest hotel refurbishment in history, but there will be no surprises. The bland plays on. From Alabama to Azerbaijan, when you stay at a Holiday Inn you know exactly what you’re getting.
Holiday Inn was founded in 1952 by a Memphis businessman called Kemmons Wilson. Wilson had driven his family to Washington DC on holiday the previous year, and had been shocked by the squalor and sleaziness of the motels that they had stopped at along the way. The chain he founded was intended to be consistently safe, clean and modestly priced everywhere. It was a company founded on the post-war boom in car ownership and steeped in Americana – it took its name from a Bing Crosby film and the first Inn opened near Elvis’ estate in Graceland. Early Holiday Inns followed the classic American motel model of a two-storey building with an open first-floor walkway around a courtyard. They were meant to be reassuring, not exciting. What was special, however, was the hotels’ signage.
Wilson specified large, colourful, brightly lit signs at the roadside, bearing the cursive company logo and topped by a neon star to draw in motorists. These were brash and self-consciously iconic, totems of corporate pride. Holiday Inn took as its livery the same green that the nascent Interstate highway system used for its road signs. The conceptual mismatch between the dazzling roadside display and the modest sleeping arrangements is not uncomfortable. Wilson had stumbled across an ideal business plan for the 20th century – with an increasingly mobile population, familiarity would become a desirable commodity. His “Great Sign” policy was designed to scream to jaded motorists: “Here it is! Just what you’ve been looking for! The familiar!”
The “Great Sign” policy was axed in 1982, and with this latest revamp Holiday Inn has killed off its last vestiges. It joins UPS in ditching a quirky but memorable trademark to make way for a forgettable, “international” replacement, shiny with depthless computer-illustrated colour gradients and unthreatening edges. The whimsical cursive of the old logo was certainly anachronistic, but the name itself is also an anachronism – the chain has long been associated with business travellers rather than vacationers in Pontiacs. It was, however, a Great Sign in itself, a kitsch entrée to a sensible, sober product.
But, just as the company was responsible for archetypal 20th-century Googie design, Holiday Inn pioneered what might be considered the global architecture of the 21st century. This architecture consciously has no style. It’s the bland global default design of interstitial spaces – hotel rooms, airport terminals, conference centres, liminal environments with their thousands of square miles of grey carpets, pastel walls, pot plants, muted prints and soft lighting. This is what the world looks like – everything else is local colour. Sleep well.
images Aladdin Colour, Inc/Corbis