21c Museum Hotel in Louisville

This post comes to you thanks to Meghan from designtripper, currently on a giant road trip from Detroit to New Orleans, uncovering design in unexpected places.

Louisville’s 21c Museum Hotel opened five years ago, but the cutting-edge art hotel seems to only get increasingly more relevant and interesting. Designed by New York-based architect Deborah Berke, it’s still the only museum hotel in the country. And the exhibits, largely comprised of works from owners Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown’s vast personal collection, change regularly. The couple, who lives on a 1,000-acre farm nearby, believe they can help save farmland through urban revitalization.

Pull up to the front door — a string of historic cast-iron buildings that Louisville is known for–an oversized chandelier hangs outside over the sidewalk, letting you know this is no ordinary experience. Plastic red penguins — discovered at the Venice Biennale — peer down from roof. They were so popular in the debut exhibit, they’ve become a 21c art mascot of sorts. Inside, an installation of four sculptures of naked children by Judy Fox loom playfully over the reception desk. The rest of the lobby looks every bit the part of contemporary museum. Cuba Now — 90 paintings, photographs, sculpture, mixed media, video installations by Cuban artists — makes a huge, compelling statement in the space.

The 21c has become such a major hotel success story, plans for two new locations are currently underway: one in Cincannati, the other in Bentonville, Arkansas. Both will be designed by Deborah Burke, who the owners admire for her design without ego.

The hotel also has a fantastic restaurant, Proof, with rotating exhibits, a bar that overlooks historic Main Street and a menu that supports local agriculture.

Photo by Josh Minogue courtesy of 21c Museum

Photo: Kenneth Hayden courtesy of 21c Museum Hotel

Photo: Kenneth Hayden courtesy of 21c Museum Hotel

The 90 guest rooms are all spare and serene, creating a comfortable experience for the guests and placing the emphasis on the art and building itself. One of the star amenities is a 21c Pip Mobile — a Lincoln Towne Car stretch limo covered entirely with shiny red glass by Louisvillian Monica Mahoney, who’s a full-time artist with a studio in Clifton.

Photo: Kenneth Hayden courtesy of 21c Museum Hotel

The 21c is open 24 hours a day, so visitors (both guests and art gawkers) have around-the-clock access to the exhibits. And that’s the a common through-line to the approach here — accessibility. Owners Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, who wanted to make a point that art doesn’t have to be behind a velvet rope, included a handful of site-specific, permanent installations that beg for interaction.

A favorite is Text Rain by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv in the elevator bank — an interactive projection that rains little words from a poem around shadow reflections on the wall — and In the Absence of Voyeurism #6 and #7 by Sean Bidic (below), videos in the public restrooms that feature eyes from people all part of a blind dart-throwing team.

Photo by Kenneth Hayden, ©2008.

Are you packed yet?

What: 21c Museum Hotel
Where: 700 W Main St. Louisville, KY 40202 (map it)
How much: Rooms starting at around $300
Highlights: It’s the only museum hotel in the country, designed by architect Deborah Berke, and features a red glass Pip mobile.
Design draw: Art, art, and more art!
Book it: 21c Museum Hotel

Unless otherwise indicated, photos by Meghan McEwen.

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Jaime Derringer, Founder + Executive Editor of Design Milk, is a Jersey girl living in SoCal. She dreams about funky, artistic jewelry + having enough free time to enjoy some of her favorite things—running, reading, making music, and drawing.