A post-pandemic view from inside Detroit's Shinola Hotel

March 08, 2022, 9:11 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

Is it just me or is this motif played? (Photo: The Shinola Hotel's Attic Suite)

My first time inside a room at the Shinola Hotel was early in the pandemic, when a friend came to visit and had a few of us over for a cloistered gathering in the living area of his studio apartment-size room.

I found the design clean and lovely, with a comforting minimalism I’d have happily transplanted into my own home. The earth-toned mid century seating, wood-paneled walls, and filtered lighting invoked a Crate & Barrel ad, only in Shinola’s iteration, the vintage trend was balanced with an industrial-chic component reminiscent of its watches — steel accents and black trim for a hint of Detroit grit. For my well-traveled friend, the hotel was “pretentious,” yet “cozy.” Another jet-setter in 2019 called it one of the nicest places she’d ever stayed.

This weekend, however, I returned to find the four-year-old Shinola looking a little dated — its once cutting-edge-for-a-hotel “retro-hipster aesthetic” starting to resemble a relic of the Before Times. (That is to say nothing of the staff, amenities and views, which, outside of the slow-moving construction project at the old Hudson's site, remain extremely nice.) 

It was as I stood in the shower that I began to see it. The rust-colored stripes along the tile; the natural fiber sacks holding various objects, including a roll of toilet paper; the serif font used to identify others, like a towel: BATH. My suspicions were confirmed when I squeezed a tube of body wash to smell musk — like that of the Commes des Garcons incense series a trendy friend started wearing during the pandemic. Google the words “musk scent popularity,” and an article from March 2020 is the first to come up.

I continued to build my case once back out in the bedroom, where I re-examined an inoffensive abstract painting in muted tones. I thought of a local artist who’d produced pieces like it several years ago, but whose work had since evolved.

If you’ve read of the “impending” “Vibe Shift,” you may see the Shinola Hotel as unlikely to survive — at least, not without a redesign.

For the uninitiated (and, if so, congratulations), I’ll back up:

“The Vibe Shift refers to a slang term used in a February 2022 article in New York magazine, it describes a dramatic cultural change that makes current trends feel dated as a wave of new trends are ushered in,” the website Know Your Meme explains. Consider downtown following the Great Recession, which transformed almost overnight from interesting, edgy and empty into a sort of post-grad campus for millennials hawking home loans, replete with a literal sandbox. That was a vibe shift — locally, anyway.

The New York article did little to explain what exactly the change would be, assuring us only that one was coming. But the same day it emerged, a friend in the Bay Area shared a blog post I felt went a long way to describe the pivot in preferences.

Titled “Too many places are STERILE and TORCHED — let’s make them COOL and FUNKY,” it described a rejection of aesthetics that are “clean, but in a charmless, lifeless, cookie-cutter, sans-serif way that makes you think of ‘optimized’ direct-to-consumer business models and timeline brands.” What the people want now, it argued, are “Un-Grammable Hang Zones (U.G.H.Z.)”

“What we have in mind specifically is the kind of warm, welcoming, unpretentious place that proliferated in the ‘90s, back in the quainter, earlier days of globalization,” the blog, Blackbird Spyplane, went on. “The type of teahouse, coffeeshop, dive bar, pizza parlor, etc. that features'' signifiers including:

  • Slow internet / no internet

  • A hodgepodge of mismatched china / mismatched furniture, possibly including a beanbag and an old couch

  • Maybe, like, a burlap coffee sack pinned to the wall next to a Japanese parasol as décor

  • A bulletin board with a bunch of “DRUMMER WANTED” and “CATSITTER AVAILABLE” fliers

The piece made me yearn for the long-shuttered A.J.’s Music Cafe in Ferndale, where pets were allowed indoors, live music was at times impromptu and, yes, the internet was slow. I hadn’t appreciated that weird-ass place enough, I thought to myself.

Art enlivens the Shinola Hotel's communal "living room." (Photo: Shinola Hotel)

Of course, I’m not delusional; I know the Shinola Hotel is the embodiment of a luxury brand. But I wondered how long it would last before it required a makeover or was replaced by a newer, hipper boutique hotel. Or maybe, in their never ending quest for “authenticity,” the privileged would spurn trend entirely, opting to lay their heads at the decades-old Courtyard Marriott.

Without the pandemic, the Shinola may have had more time. Though its brand, which co-opted Detroit’s “rebirth,” is on its own a depreciating currency, the pandemic chastened whatever luster remained. Covid-19 marked an end to so much — sanity, careers, marriages, life as we knew it. It stands to reason that such profound change should be mirrored in the cultural space.

My mood board, for one, is looking a lot more whimsical as we re-emerge. Recently, I found myself festooning windows with chains of old surgical masks and draping a perfectly good glass table in an assortment of lime green garments.

To that end, the Shinola’s communal first-level “living room,” where an array of bright, ceiling-high contemporary art helps offset what could be confused for a Crate & Barrel showroom, may weather the shift.

And in the hotel’s defense, not everyone views it as dated — yet. For an older man I met in the elevator, the vibe remains “funky.”

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