In cities around the world, hotel rooms — with their carpets showing the fresh tracks of a housekeeping vacuum and their vents exhaling temperature-controlled air — await the arrival of strangers.
Still. Tidy. Blank.
Enter Swiss photographer Roger Eberhard, who spent a year documenting 32 Hilton hotel rooms in 32 countries. The result: a postcard, of sorts, in the form of “Standard,” a book that’s as quiet as a readied room.
In its 88 pages of restrained graphic design and minimal text, the book, published by Scheidegger & Spiess in February, takes readers on a journey of deja vu.
Eberhard says he has long been intrigued with the idea that we travel the world and yet stay in a place that looks like everywhere else. That interest drew him to the Hilton chain, whose founder, the late Conrad Hilton, once described each Hilton International property as a “little America.” That mid 20th-century approach was intended, at least in part, to showcase capitalism on a global scale.
In 2015, Eberhard set out across five continents, always staying in a standard Hilton room, where he photographed each interior from the same perspective. He also took an accompanying snapshot of the view from the guest-room window.
In the book, the paired photos are displayed on facing pages, a format that gives readers the sense of being frequent travelers as they flip pages, pausing briefly in locales barely discernible from one another. Bed pillows are plumped, their positions varying slightly from double-stacked to propped. Wall colors and draperies change, but the atmosphere remains strikingly similar.
As Franziska Solte notes in one of three “Standard” essays, “The guest room core elements have not changed since the 1950s.”
The city views divulge few clues as to the rooms’ locations. (Readers must turn to the back cover to discover where they are, which makes for a geographic guessing game.) There is some evidence. Languages vary on billboards, for example. And there are hints of humanity in the panoramas: laundry hanging on a line in Lima, Peru; a lone man at a bus shelter in Reykjavik, Iceland. There’s also a barely visible Kentucky Fried Chicken in a Mexico City shot. Case in point.
Like the photographs, the book’s essays examine the ubiquity of one-night homes. Does the sameness serve a purpose, much like the practicality of a travel wardrobe? Or does it reflect a growing global monotony?
Eberhard, 32, spoke with The Washington Post via FaceTime from his home in a small village near Zurich.
Q: What was the seed of this project?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by places that are built according to a formula, by places that lead to a function without you realizing that the environment is dictating your behavior — like the Starbucks phenomenon. There are Starbucks all over the world and you know exactly how to behave. You know exactly where to get the sugar, where to get the milk. Irish bars look everywhere the same in the world. They’re all called James Joyce or Finnegans Wake or Dubliners, and it makes me feel uneasy. They seem like little traps, and we’re constantly falling for them.
Q: In the rooms you visited, did you find the 1950s “little America” concept of Conrad Hilton? Or, all these years later, could they as easily be a little Germany?
A: What does it really mean, a little America, these days? All of the Western world is quite similar, certainly in design aspects. I don’t really see a big difference between an American design or a German design nowadays, when it comes to personality in hotel rooms.
Q: The concept of “Standard” is a little sad, especially as it applies to the similarity of the hotel-window views.
A: It’s not a nostalgic project. It’s a fact that more and more uniformity is being created.
Q: Did you reach a conclusion? Do we have an innate need for familiarity, perceived safety and security? Why do we eat at a McDonald’s in Munich, for example?
A: We like to get what we expect. We don’t like surprises, especially when traveling to a foreign country. It’s a complete irony.
Q: There is that moment, however, when you exit the hotel lobby and you feel the humidity or smell the diesel exhaust and hear the noises.
A: I love that moment when the world hits you, when you get this reality check.
Q: You’ve said that Bangkok was one of your favorite locations for photographing the window view.
A: It’s a city that’s too big to really grasp. It looks like it’s growing almost in different parts. It’s a wild city. Low buildings sort of look old and shabby and these shiny skyscrapers are being built. And this high train is running through the image. It has everything.
Q: What type of camera did you use?
A: A Mamiya with a digital back.
Q: What do you seek out now in the way of accommodations?
A: I like small, quaint hotels that offer a decent standard. I like it when the person in the lobby is also the owner and we get little tips for the city and it feels a little bit family. I don’t think I ever stayed in a Hilton before the project. It’s extremely cool that you can come down [to the lobby] and whatever you want, whatever you wish for, they never say no. It’s quite astounding. For the project, I had to have the bed on the right. I came to the reception desk. I said, “Listen. I’m a very difficult guest. I need a room with a bed on the right.” I never explained what I was doing. Sometimes I changed my room five, six, seven times. I’m sure they’ve had crazier requests in their careers than the bed on the right-hand side. But still, 32 countries in one year and not once, no one said “no” or “why.”
Q: Have you had feedback on the book?
A: It makes people feel uneasy. That’s the most common reaction. They expected a lot more diversity. Knowing that every time they look at a room in a different country they cannot see that they’re in a different country, except in Hanoi with the funny wallpaper. We have this romantic notion of the world being a diverse place.
Q: There’s the expression, “Stop the world, I want to get off.”
A: Standardization: There’s something frightening about it.
Q: The movie “Lost in Translation” comes to mind.
A: A lot of the emotion in what [director] Sofia Coppola did dealt with a sterile environment that you have to fill with your own emotional state. And there’s a vacuum that comes about in these places. Even though it wasn’t an inspiration, I could relate to the feeling it conveys.
Q: In his essay, Benedict Wells writes that when he was traveling a great deal, the sameness of rooms made him feel lonely.
A: I agree with him in a way, a room is lacking anything personal. It’s, to a degree, quite sterile and doesn’t give you much warmth. It provides you with a home, but there’s nothing that really reflects you. That can intensify the feeling of loneliness. But I don’t really feel lonely in hotel rooms.
Q: Do you still have the feeling of excitement when you first enter a room?
A: It’s almost like a game, time to find these things: Aha, here’s the armchair with the lamp right next to it. There’s the pen. The recurring items that need to be in the hotel room in order to make people feel at home, things that people require. Everything is so perfectly measured and neatly arranged. It was a fun game.
Q: Did you have a favorite object in the rooms?
A: The alarm clock. I know people steal all sorts of things. I didn’t steal anything. But if there’s one thing I would have wanted, it would have been the Hilton alarm clock.
Powers is a writer based in Detroit. Her website is rebeccapowers.com.
More from Travel: