It’s the end of a design era for Super 8. The North American budget hotel chain, which originally offered dirt-cheap room rates of $8.88 per night, is taking down all the artwork in its over 2,000 guest rooms as part of a complete redesign. They’ll soon be replaced with slick, large-scale photographs. Nondescript images of landscapes, wildlife, and flowers hung in frames of all sorts are coming off the walls, some after 40 years, in favor of contemporary black-and-white images. The company has described these as “hyperlocal photographs” — that is, artsy, high-resolution shots of different locations around each hotel’s city.
“Super 8 is elevating economy, and we’re using art to tell our story,” the company’s senior vice president of brand operations, Mike Mueller, told me. “We are taking it back from what was your grandfather’s budget motel, and we’re transforming it into a brand for today’s travelers.”
To give some of the works a proper send-off, Super 8 threw a retirement party in the form of a gallery show yesterday evening at Manhattan’s Openhouse space. On view were 100 pieces that anyone could take home for free, each labelled as it would be in a typical exhibition. Giving them away, of all people, was Amy Sedaris, who served as “Chief Art Appreciator” for the night and signed a “certificate of authenticity” for each one. The comedian was chosen because “she’s so quirky and fun, she can do this better than anybody,” Mueller said.
Sedaris also titled all the works, which are mostly print reproductions of oil paintings or watercolors. She christened a Monet reproduction from Potosi, Missouri, “Monet Knock-Knock Of, Who’s There?”; a watercolor copy from Lincoln, Illinois, “It’s More About the Frame than the Flower”; and a print from Butte, Montana, “Square Dancin’ Flowers.”
“I just gave them whatever names came to mind,” she told me. “It was really difficult.”
Super 8 calls these works “not-so-super art”; Mueller said they “amount to noise in a guest room … probably an afterthought for most guests when they walk in.” Sure, these works — which are believed to have been largely sourced from garage sales or big-box retailers — wouldn’t grace the walls of an art gallery (Mueller does not believe any pieces by famous artists made their way into Super 8 rooms). Still, they provide a certain charm for people traveling far from home: there’s something more comforting and familiar about a plate decorated with bunnies than a sleek photograph that would not look out of place on Flickr or Shutterstock.
Super 8 has actually sourced the forthcoming photographs, which also function as oversized headboards, through a supplier that received the rights to use them. Super 8 branch owners previously received no instruction other than to limit the art in each room to two pieces — and according to Mueller, “art” could mean wall works, sculpture, or even dried flowers, hence the decades of eclecticism and, at times, eccentricity. Now, owners must choose photos from the over 50,000 provided, with the flexibility of deciding which ones best represent their locations. Super 8 may also commission new photographs if an owner desires an image of a specific site.
From a business point of view, choosing consistency makes sense as a way to shape a brand and a visitor experience. But I can’t help feeling a little sad about the loss of each room’s individuality and of any kitsch that once presented overnighters with a pleasant or humorous surprise.
The artwork at last night’s send-off was given away on a first-come, first-served basis, and the speed at which people claimed the pieces showed that they’re in pretty high demand despite their average, mostly prosaic subjects. An ornate print of a plant I’d been eyeing, for instance, bore a red sticker after I turned my back on it for a split second. And I noticed some people change their minds as organizers revealed more options. Beyond their subject matter, these pictures carry nostalgia for a fading era in the history of budget travel. They thankfully don’t come with bedbugs or whiffs of cigarette smoke, but they are witnesses of the innumerable experiences — whether pleasant, tolerable, or awful — we’ve all had settling into them in the midst of a tiring trip, heartened by the promise of free continental breakfasts, truckers’ specials, and good old-fashioned hospitality.