- Housekeeping by Design: Hotels and Labor by David Brody
Many cultural commentators and scholars have remarked on the transitional social status of staying in a hotel. Guests escape the mundane responsibilities of their own households to occupy a liminal space designed for comfort and ease. The labor that creates this comfort is expected to be invisible, particularly the "back of the house" work of cleaning and maintenance. Housekeeping by Design: Hotels and Labor by David Brody, an associate professor of design studies at Parsons School of Design, offers an ambitious study of how hotel interior design impacts the work of housekeeping. Brody states that he wants to expand the field of design studies to include not just industry professionals and their work, but the "service design" or workflow of a designed space as experienced by a variety of users. He makes a compelling case for the impact of both the physical and service design of a hotel on its workers, particularly the housekeepers who occupy the lowest rung of the labor hierarchy. Reading this book during two different stays in large chain hotels, I found myself particularly conscious of both the design features provided for my benefit and their possible impact on the workflow of the hotel housekeeping staff. While familiar with the historical role of the hotel maid and their continued struggle in the contemporary labor market, Brody's unusual book—part memoir, part neo-Marxist analysis—caused me to see more clearly the potential impact of contemporary hotel interiors on the workers responsible for cleaning and maintaining them.
Brody's study alternates between personal vignettes recounting his experiences in hotels and topical chapters. This engaging format helps to mitigate the frequent references to Marxist theory and also successfully links contemporary labor issues with historical ones. The vignettes that introduce each chapter include musings on topics as varied as the TripAdvisor website, Brody's childhood stays at the Plaza Hotel in New York, movies set in hotels, and an ill-fated stay at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. Chapter 1, "Theoretically Checking In," maps out Brody's concerns with the interaction between hotel labor and the experience hotel management promises to provide for guests, specifically the ways labor gets asked to hide itself for guest satisfaction. By introducing theorists such as Heidegger, Veblen, and Lefebvre, Brody delves into classic critiques of conspicuous consumption and the relation between leisure and capitalism while attempting to complicate the power dynamic between hotel labor and capitalism with questions of agency. In particular Brody acknowledges the gender and racial divide represented between front and back of the house hotel workers.
Chapter 2, "Design and the Chambermaid: Mary Bresnan's The Practical Hotel Housekeeper and E. M. Statler's Service Code," places Brody's theoretical concerns into a historical framework emphasizing management attempts to control and regularize the labor of hotel housekeepers in the early twentieth century. He reads Bresnan's prescriptive text of 1900 as a "model of servitude" which Statler updated in the management of his pioneering and eponymous hotel chain. Statler's advertising slogan "the guest is always right" rested on an integrated approach to service design that emphasized new efficiencies of scale. Brody nicely situates the current status of hotel housekeeping within this history and reminds the reader of their participation in the inequalities of the modern hotel.
Chapter 3, "A Textbook Case: Pedagogy and Housekeeping," examines management training textbooks on hotel housekeeping and how this top-down approach misses important elements of the job. The examples in this chapter come from the post–World War II period and reflect the growth of the corporate hotel foreshadowed by the Statler chain. Brody's close reading of a variety of textbooks serves mainly as a strawman to further frame his critique of design systems that do not consider the workers or acknowledge their agency.