Checking In

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With its lush gardens, extravagant restaurants, and impeccable décor, the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles is the most fantastical hotel in the world. At least according to David Brody, and he would know. Brody is the director of Parsons’ MA in History of Decorative Arts and Design program and author of the forthcoming book Do Not Disturb: Design, Hotels, and Labor. He has been researching the hospitality industry and has “always been fascinated by hotels. I love the idea of escaping and going to this other place that’s so far removed from your home.”

Years of travel gave Brody extensive contact with the “front of the house” hotel experience; now he’s looking behind the scenes. In his new book Brody explores the intersection of design and labor, focusing on housekeeping. We talked to him about the subject for the latest Research Radio episode, Checking In.

Brody’s research looks at both spatial and service design. Whereas spatial design considers a hotel’s physical spaces, including the materials used to construct them, service design deals with people and labor. While interviewing staff in Hawaii, Chicago, and New York, Brody was surprised to learn the extent to which design initiatives affect a hotel’s housekeeping staff.

“I didn’t just hear stories about how new programs resulted in lost hours or figuring out how to maneuver carts around multiple floors, but about how their health and quality of leisure time is diminished,” he explains.

While in Hawaii, Brody investigated Starwood Corporation’s “Make a Green Choice” sustainability initiative, which enabled guests to choose to have their rooms cleaned every three days instead of daily. Although hotel guests may consider such sustainability measures as wholly positive, the Starwood housekeeping staff experienced dramatic negative effects: decreased wages, less vacation time, and increased manual labor. “To actually hear how work was affecting their personal lives made me realize that I was dealing with people and our relationship to design,” says Brody.

At the request of the housekeeping staff, Starwood cancelled the “Make a Green Choice” program, a decision that raises a pressing question: How do hotels incorporate sustainability plans into design without affecting staff? It’s a question Brody has contemplated often.

“I wish I had a simple, ready answer to that,” he says, “but the solution is in negotiation, where both management and housekeeping design initiatives together.”

The guests lounging in Hotel Bel-Air’s gardens and pools may rarely stop to consider the implications of the designed services they enjoy, especially since long standing tradition has supplanted the idea of little elves perfecting the space in their absence. Perhaps David Brody’s book will change that.

To learn more about David Brody’s work, visit his faculty profile here.

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Research Radio is a New School podcast series that explores academic inquiry at the university. For nearly a century, our faculty and students have been researching pressing social and scientific issues from sustainability to psychology to politics, and now you can hear about their latest findings.