Who’d want a room with yellow wallpaper? A famous short story has been written about the damage it does to your mental health. Beige? A recipe for blandness. But does the type of curtain you have affect your mood too? Or the flooring or, indeed, the whole style of the room?
I ask this because I found myself in smart rooms at the Grand Hotel Wien in Vienna, feeling rather ungrateful. The room had a fin de siècle decadence to it: a deep gold-coloured chintz sofa and armchairs, marble everywhere, a writing desk, a high ceiling and windows with a view of the city’s circular boulevard, Ringstrasse — the gateway to the once imperial city, now just a charming midsized European capital. After proclaiming that I could probably imagine living in this style for a month, I changed my mind.
I had noticed a change in the behaviour of my partner. Normally quite a refined and egalitarian person, he had descended into the deep sofa with a newspaper and begun to seem a mite patrician.
I, meanwhile, started tidying things up — a duty of propriety hitherto unknown in my London life. Had we, by virtue of the chintz, of memories of old ideas of couples inhabiting opulent interiors, begun to act as the room expected of us?
There was a portrait at the back of my mind: Édouard Vuillard’s “Monsieur and Madame Feydeau on a Sofa”, not unlike one in the Grand Hotel Wien. Feydeau is sprawled out, belly up, chuffing on a cigar. His wife is perched on the edge trying to look proper, giving him the side-eye.
Had we been in a minimalist room, or some little boutique hotel, we may have felt different — more modern, more playful. He might have sat less comfortably. I may have regarded it as my right to make a mess.
Environments are designed to have an impact on people — why else bother? — but a hotel room is kind of an experiment where you step into a pseudo-domestic environment for a few days. In your own home, you can spend a small fortune in time and money choosing how to express yourself — or how you’d like others to think of you — but a hotel room is different. It is a pre-designed set for temporary occupants, who are invited to feel they are living there without being able to control the elements in it, other than booking it in the first place.
An environment can make you happy or sad or feel like dancing — but more than just mood, can it change how you behave?
One idea about formal gardens was that their symmetry and order would bestow rationalism on the people walking through them. There was a fine one at the Belvedere Palace nearby, designed in the late 18th century in French formal style, where gravel paths suppressed the natural disorder of nature, to foster clear thinking. The Chinese tradition of feng shui is also meant to organise the energies of a space and what it imparts to its occupants.
Space affects us. People who live in high-ceilinged rooms have loftier thoughts — the cathedral effect, architects call it. This idea was in part confirmed by a 2007 study “The Influence of Ceiling Height” by Meyers-Levy and Zhu. They found some evidence lower rooms are better for closer focus or “item-specific processing”.
A question arises: is it because they can afford high-ceilinged rooms that they are more creative? Or because the cost of heating a large room means you have to walk around in circles thinking?
The furnishings, too, prime the mind for what is expected. There are shelves of pseudoscience on how they affect one’s mood: blue is soothing, red is energising; woollen and wooden textures are softening and inviting; velvet is luxury.
Aspirations don’t always work out though. One exquisite literary description of place and discomfort is in Rebecca: the second Mrs de Winter wished she was “a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls” before entering Manderley. Despite the footmen and fireplaces, she was an unhappy chatelaine.
The hotel visit, and dip into the 1900s, was temporary. Equality returned. It made me think of all the hotel rooms I’d forgotten, so neutral was their decor that I barely changed to attune to them. But my favourite rooms remain those at the Jane Hotel in New York, a mere $99 a night when I first started going there. A seafarer’s respite, the rooms are cabin-sized, with a single bed and a tiny sink at the end, with perhaps a glimpse of the Hudson. There was no pretence of an invitation to stay forever. Like everyone else, you were just a traveller, passing through on the way to new adventures.