he first hotel I ever stayed in was the venerable Edison in Times Square. I was 15 at the time, on a high school-sponsored theater trip, and was the lucky kid in the odd-numbered group of students to end up with a room to himself.

The ceilings seemed impossibly high, the soap improbably small and the bed profoundly trenched. I undrawered my first Gideon's Bible, and, finding nothing in it to deter me, smoked my first cigarette.

The year was 1970, and on the bedside table was a census form -- apparently, census-takers count transient residents, too. I filled it out in persona. Instead of being a teenager who lived in the suburbs of Chicago with his parents, I answered as if I were an actor who lived in the Edison for its convenience to my dressing room at the Eugene O'Neill Theater and, equally important, my table at Sardi's.

It seemed everything about the hotel's environment provided me a means to escape my relatively ordinary life. It nurtured an inclination toward fantasy.

The Edison was a bit of an anomaly. Trends in hospitality during that period were, under the banner of reliability, rushing toward predictability. Hundreds of hotels arose in intentional pre-fab anonymity, with differentiation limited to the view out the window. It was as if the developers aspired to be uninspired.

That trend continues to this day, but in the late '80s and throughout the '90s, a new, welcome track emerged. Guests checking into cutting-edge urban hotels find themselves steeped in high-concept environments that appear not so much designed as curated. The rise of boutique hotels and the success of Ian Schrager (and later, the Kimpton Group) have expanded lodging options for both leisure and business travelers, while Las Vegas casino owners engage in a game of one-upsmanship that has produced opportunities for escape and fantasy previously reached only by Heironymus Bosch and a handful of opium eaters.

Starwood's W line might constitute a third track: The oxymoron hotel. The Ws are off-beat, promise unique experiences for the masses and are pioneers in the field of corporate funkiness. Though arguably formulaic, they demonstrate that reliability in a chain of hotels need not be synonymous with predictability.

But wait -- there's more. Anyone interested in the direction of the hospitality industry beyond discussions of rev par, yield management and supply acquisition should get to Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York before March 2.

This branch of the Smithsonian is presenting an exhibit entitled "New Hotels for Global Nomads," and, in addition to reveling in the glory of great hotels of the past and present, it looks at futuristic designs and concepts for hotels. It's a fun, inspiring, often pretentious, often hilarious look at a segment whose creative direction is vital to the travel industry.

One visionary has imagined architectural "implants" for hotels, and exhibits an example: a vibrating plastic bench with a flickering blue glow that emits a deep, throbbing moan reminiscent of a sci-fi movie soundtrack. It would certainly add a level of excitement as you wait for your room to be cleaned. Another artist has diagramed the "Hotel Pro Forma," which deconstructs a hotel operation into an iconic graphic showing the location of such innovations as "chance events" and "guest performers."

My favorite exhibit was the imaginary "24/7 Hotel." It demonstrated a four-zone hotel room, prefabricated out of fiberglass, which featured an office space, conversation pit, spa/bathroom and fitness center in an ingenious hi-tech fusion of architecture and furniture design.

On one level, what's on exhibit is a far cry from my rather straightforward room at the Edison. But, similar to the Edison, it echoes with the themes of escape and fantasy, and reminds visitors that a hotel can be about so much more than room and board. Like high ceilings and small bars of soap, the exhibits can, at least temporarily, readjust your view of reality, both spatial and internal.

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