Themed hotel rooms used to evoke images of cigarette smoke baked in carpets, afternoon affairs, and bulletproof glass lobbies. They were once sacred places with coin-operated beds and one star reviews using just a few words, one or two of them written in angry capital letters. This, as you may have seen on your Instagram feed lately, has changed with the emergence of vacation rentals.
Themed rooms, with their heart-shaped tubs and fantasy suites (jungle rooms! ice caves!), are back in vogue thanks to intrepid adult-motel adventurers like Margaret and Corey Bienert of A Pretty Cool Hotel Tour. A retro motel renaissance seen with places such as Southern California’s Hicksville Pines has also introduced a new generation, who grew up thinking motor inns with themed rooms were strictly by the hour, to the nostalgia-tinged experience these spaces offer.
Looking at images of these fantasy rooms gives the viewer a liminal space feeling, being caught in between an era that’s passed and what’s left of it. Part of the pleasure of creating a themed space is bringing back totems of a time that’s not too far away yet near-impossible to recreate – a time before social media made heart-shaped tubs look so good on our phone screens. Beverly DeVille owns House of Adora, a Hollywood Regency-meets-70s-glam rental space in East Nashville that she moved into in 2017 with basically nothing.
“It wasn’t until I found my vintage crushed red velvet, round bed in 2018 that I really started going for it,” Beverly explains. “Someone tipped me off to the Craigslist ad for the bed, and once I bought it, I was like, ‘Wow, it really is possible to find stuff like this.’ And I can make my house whatever I want it to be!”
In a world of intangible output—typing and emailing into the void—home renovation is one of the few ways we can experience concrete, look-what-I-did results. Couple that feeling with an escapist theme, and it makes sense that these nostalgic remodelings have spiked over the last few years. Early into 2020, Margaret and Corey Bienert of A Pretty Cool Hotel Tour designed a color-centric escape in Palm Springs that had been purchased by their friends to be a vacation rental.
“[We’re] going through some really shocking and trying times where we’re all having to navigate every day in a new way,” Margaret says. “I think that makes us crave an escape from that reality more than normal.”
Having seen many of America’s themed rooms, from an under-the-sea experience in an Illinois Best Western to the Poconos’ heart-shaped tubs, the couple knew exactly how to make a kitschy ambience feel clean and accessible. Each room of The Rainbow Getaway is a different color, with a furry pink room à la Jayne Mansfield’s Pink Palace and a lavender seashell room.
Facing a small budget, they got savvy by securing product donations from brands like Mitzi and Farrow & Ball. Though the home’s four bedrooms were vintage-inspired, they realized how expensive nostalgia can be. “Even the cheap vintage that we found on Offer Up still cost money,” Margaret explains. “We really did as much as we could to work with brands to get new pieces but use old elements of decor, whether it was just a vase or a light switch.”
For Eva Slattery, who remodeled her grandparents’ Minnesota pool house, renovating was a chance to leave behind a stultifying 13-year finance career. “I come from a boring, boring job in mortgage of looking at tax returns and crunching numbers,” she tells Clever. “To have these interesting [challenges] every day and feel so accomplished when you get it done is so much more rewarding than what I came from.”
In the fall of 2020, Eva began renovating what would become known as Grandpa’s Pool House, a late ’70s/early ’80s dream home with lots of wood paneling and an indoor pool. An hour north of the Twin Cities, the home is located in the small town of Stanchfield. After the death of her grandparents, Eva’s uncle had been trying to sell the vacant house, which was occupied by a family of rodents and featured a pool that hadn’t worked in over 20 years.
As fate would have it, Eva was looking for a place to renovate and rent out, but her grandparents’ home hadn’t initially crossed her mind. “My grandparents were so conservative in a lot of ways,” she explains, which led her to not exactly see the space as a party house. But with four big bedrooms and a pool, it was perfect for large groups. “This area is just so quiet and calm and Scandinavian,” Eva adds. Less than a year after her first rental in July 2021, nearly every weekend is booked until next November. Even the local fire department got on board, with a neighbor booking the house for a firefighters’ murder-mystery dinner.
Themed rooms come on a bit of a spectrum these days, ranging from one tasteful flamingo-print wall and chic, tufted sofa to full-blown pink fur everywhere. It sort of depends on how important words like “luxury” and “modern” are to you. As Margaret and Corey worked with the house’s owners, they had to balance their appetite for kitsch with what the owners felt would be more palatable. While Margaret insisted that just one fur wall wouldn’t cut it, she compromised on other aspects like toning down the plants in the green “jungle” room.
“We’d call it entry-level when it comes to themed rooms [and sought] to find something that’s themed but not too aggressive,” Margaret says. “We would think of some of our friends or family members who might be a little less into themes, who want things to feel clean and modern. What would they say if they stayed here?”
Grandpa’s Pool House leans a little further into a retro maximalist’s good time, with Astroturf, wig-wearing mannequins, ’70s-brown bathrooms, and lots of pool floaties. You can put on one of the Goodwill-bought wedding dresses laying around and jump in the pool. Similar to Margaret and Corey with The Rainbow Getaway and Haley’s Pastel Penthouse, Eva went into her project with zero construction experience but a very clear vision of escape and fun. She would listen to podcasts and YouTube videos, but most renovation and vacation rental advice doesn’t apply when you’re talking about fur on the walls and motorcycles in the basement.
“It was like, ‘Don’t keep too much crap out or it will get taken.’ I have crap everywhere,” Eva recalls. “Or like white towels, white sheets, you just want it simple, clean. That’s recommended. I realize that’s not the route I’m going.”
Ironically, these nostalgic escapes wouldn’t really be possible without the internet and social media. Before YouTube, where else would you learn how to cover a room’s walls in pink fur? Apps like Peerspace and platforms like Instagram spread the word to every fashion photographer or group of women in search of a bachelorette party destination. “I didn’t need any other third party to help me market it or get the word out,” Eva says. “Social media has done all of that work for me.”
Los Angeles is a natural hub for themed spaces, with endless backdrops needed for movies, television shows, and influencer-driven content. It was the slight oversaturation of the pink dollhouse theme that motivated model-turned-photographer Haley Warr to create something from a different era. Her Pastel Penthouse is a pure ’80s vision: palm tree mirrors, black jaguars, lacquer furniture and all. She had tried to get a themed rental off the ground twice before, but the third charmed time was in Koreatown.
While her previous apartments were ‘60s-inspired, this penthouse was channeling an Armani-clad executive. “When I walked in, it made me think of an ’80s penthouse with the vertical blinds, the big open floor plan, the floor-to-ceiling windows,” Haley elaborates. Friends helped her with the “really hard handyman stuff” like suspending a 50-pound mirror from a concrete ceiling and sourcing furniture.
Haley’s eye for the decade’s pieces was honed when she started a reselling business with her friend Amy of I Luv Lucite along with the experience of growing up with a grandma who flipped properties in Texas. After hiring a few handymen through TaskRabbit to hang chandeliers, Haley was able to figure out how to do it on her own. “I’m not a handyman, I’m not a painter,” she insists. “But I saw a vision in my head and knew I had to try to execute it. I did a lot of the learning with the last place, so now it’s been much quicker.”
A connecting sentiment between all of these retro renovators is if you have the vision, dive in. It will mean late nights working overtime—Margaret and Corey would stay up until 4 a.m. painting and stapling fur—and showing up to county board meetings to appease worried neighbors. But you will have created your own portal for escape, even if it’s close to home.
“There’s this fun thing about theme rooms that invites anyone who wants to step into that weird little fantasy for the night to do what you want to do there and see something you’re not used to seeing,” Margaret concludes. “Even just being on the internet is overwhelming and exhausting. It’s nice to be in a room that you want to look at and touch and experience.”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest