I don’t think the St. Martins Lane Hotel is having the intended effect on me. This nexus of urban cool, the pinnacle expression of the boutique hotel in London, leaves me feeling as cool as hanging out at a mall. Sure, all the globalized bits are in place. High-concept fusion restaurant, a lobby full of Philippe Starck design ideas and baroquely gilded chairs, ethereal video loops projected onto the doors of the exclusive Light Bar. Then there’s the whole fab-modern package of the building itself, a neo-Eastern Bloc Wallpaper* magazine esthetic of white surfaces, blonde wood and wild splashes of colour. And over it all, the pumping soundtrack of the cool-stream globalized West.

“Small, unique and ultrafashionable, boutiques launched the current resurgence of hotels as design palaces, social meccas and urban jewels.” Sings the literature for the show New Hotels for Global Nomads at the National Design Museum in New York. There’s no denying that St. Martins Lane is popular. The high revolving door has not stopped spinning since I arrived. Vuitton and Samsonite have flowed non-stop from the taxis to the fishbowl blue of the elevators, where monitors play endless clips of crashing waves and guests are wafted on a sonic cloud up into the pearl-white minimalism of their tiny rooms.

bite-me-karim-rashidWhich would all be pretty cool given my expectations for a business hotel – extra pillows, data port – but for a sense enveloping me that I am part of some enormous global herd. Haven’t I seen these Light Bar patrons before? The trendy Japanese kids, the American hip hoppers and the crowd of suburbanites checking themselves out. Aren’t the same people sitting at this very moment at the bar in the Sanderson or the Hudson in NYC? Or even the Opus Hotel, a Global Nomad oasis in far-away Vancouver? I’m sitting on a lobby stool shaped like a molar tooth, and I am completely clueless as to where I might be.

Let’s call this condition agoramnesia. The sensation of being in a public place and being unable to remember which, of many similar places, it might actually be. The last time I felt this way was when I was entering Edmonton and passing that stretch of fast-food franchises and box stores that lard the inbound arteries of virtually every city in North America. But if the St. Martins Lane Hotel – gathering together the coolest memes in architecture, food, fashion, design and attendant livery – is coming off as some kind of coconut-scented, orange pashmina-draped generica, then what exactly is cool? The answer is: nothing. Because cool is dead. Not because it was co-opted by corporate brands. It’s dead because we killed it, and dead it shall remain.

Understand that this isn’t about St. Martins Lane, they’re not responsible for the death of cool; they’re only an attractively located mausoleum to the concept. It’s mid-morning now, I’m walking the streets of London and loving it. It feels like the centre of the universe. I’m having breakfast in Soho, watching the jets coming in overhead. These are people arriving, of course. But ideas too. Ideas about business and fashion, food and technology. For a moment, I can actually see ideas flashing through the sky, just as ideas are at this wry moment being packeted and shuttled by routers along the phone lines and fibre optic cables that grid the West.

-Sk8er-Boi-Full-Music-Video-screencaps-HQ-avril-lavigne-19783398-800-600

 

And yes, on this slick surface where ideas skate from point to point, the lightest ideas may be observed to move the most quickly. Democratic freedoms, say, are heavy. But Avril Lavigne’s Wilkesboro Elementary School T-shirt from the Sk8ter Boi video may be observed to ripple the international meme pool (and eBay sales patterns) within about 48 hours. Thus do the small, unique and ultrafashionable places of the world begin to bear resemblance to one another. The white cube decor of the Kurt Geiger shoe store exactly like my hotel room. The burdifilek redesign of Danier Leather in Toronto strikingly similar to the new Four Seasons in Tokyo. Jim Lambie’s brilliant Zobop floor stripes on display at the Tate Britain strangely echoed in the new Ikea catalogue. “Prepare for the Unbøring,” quips the catalogue copy – no trace of irony there.

Of course, when everything starts looking the same, “børing” would be the better word for it. And since when did hipsters settle for such sameness? Don’t non-conformity, rebellion and the Dionysian willingness to offend the tastes of the mainstream define the concept of cool? Well, they once did. The trouble is there’s nobody to offend any more because the mainstream and the coolstream have merged into one cultural soup.

560018-2605089-longchamp-le_pliage-small-shoulder-tote-bag-sunshine-frontFormer Face Magazine contributor Adair Brouwer, loves to talk about this topic. “Cool was always previously defined by the separation between a hip underground – ‘us’ – and a very naff, uncool ‘them.’ By the mid 1990s, this entire division had been erased, wiped away, rubbed out.” Technology has made it much easier to find out about new ideas. “You used to really work for coolness,” Brouwer reminisces. “You’d have to find some obscure downtown record store that carried some obscure ‘zine, which you’d then pore over like a sacred text. The Internet changed that.”

Nowhere in London do cool and naff fuse more than at the Saatchi Gallery, with all its “scandalous” art and antiestablishmentarianism. Charles Saatchi, who built this collection, describes himself as a “neophiliac,” one who gorges on the new. And, indeed, he has embraced many unproven artists over the years, just as he has embraced his media image as Patron to Rebels. But let’s sit for a moment in the gallery and observe how these rebels are embraced by the mainstream. Because while the press may hysterically assert that Saatchi has situated himself here in a two fingers up gesture to the powers that be, the fact that his gallery is snuggled into the crotch of the London Eye is the more significant detail. The gargantuan Ferris wheel and the enormous gallery – a neat illustration of bombastic civic architecture over the centuries – are in direct competition for the same tourist dollars. They vie for the same brief attention spans of the same bored international consumers. And so you’ll find, a few art students in their faux 1970s sneakers. But you’ll also find far more middle-class types: British couples in matching blazers, and stressed-looking North Americans just popped over from Big Ben.

Neophilia and non-conformity is the early 21st-century mainstream, a fact of abiding interest to University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath. He argues in The Rebel Sell  that we (the so-called mainstream) consume rebellion and individualism, just as in the 1950s, we consumed products that made us appear wealthy. “Cool has merely replaced conspicuous consumption as the status hierarchy of contemporary urban society,” he tells me. “The desire for distinction now drives consumerism.”

my-gold-iphone-5s-finally-arrived-and-its-simply-okay

 

So we see how mainstream cool has, in fact, become. Advertisers no longer pitch the appearance of wealth; instead, they sell us the very same things on the basis of how they’ll contribute to an illusion of individuality and rebellion. The shift in marketing focus doesn’t change the fact that these are precisely the same kinds of naff mainstream consumer transactions as before. And this is exactly why sameness spreads relentlessly even among those environments purporting to be “small, unique and ultrafashionable.” The trendy ideas jetting in and out of London and around the Western world are doing so in response to the unstoppable engines of consumer markets. And so a cool new product in London in due course becomes an indistinguishable, agoramnesia-inducing product in NYC.

And here we arrive at the death rattle for cool as we’ve known it. Because at precisely the moment we understand cool as an arbitrage opportunity, we crush it out of contemporary existence. Markets abhor arbitrage, ruthlessly competing it away wherever it arises. And this was true even before the Internet allowed Avril Lavigne’s T-shirt to circle the globe thrice before the cock crowed for morning. So, as Brouwer might ironically have it, “Whither the hipster?” Which is a tricky question when what the world agrees is cool is by definition not and what nobody knows about cannot be proven to exist. A koan, you might say, for contemporary culturists

 

Timothy Taylor is a bestselling, award-winning novelist and journalist. His new novel is The Blue Light Project. He lives in Vancouver. Used with permission of Timothy Taylor.    
More Features

Tom Deacon Interview

FEATURES / November 1 2016 / The CDR

Karim Rashid’s Garbo and Its Discontents

FEATURES / March 11 2017 / Misha Volf

Best Canadian Design of 2013

FEATURES / December 30 2013 / The CDR