Style: Daring, edgy chic
Scene: Prahran's style-saturated fashion hub
You wouldn't normally expect to read this about a luxury hotel: "An unsettling reflection of a flawed world ... where humanity's dirty laundry is aired... failure and ugliness... a rudderless journey of supposed meaningless existence."
Not the words of a disappointed reviewer, but in fact the Cullen's own in-suite blurb explaining the odd world of its signature artist, bad boy Adam Cullen. This is the first time I've found existential angst in with the room service menu, but I like it. Your hosts assume you, the guest, are up to the challenge of Cullen's work. No corporate clichés here; no patronising platitudes. This hotel loves you for your mind.
Welcome to The Cullen, where the raw and outrageous comes wrapped in a cashmere throw of indulgence. A contradiction of a hotel celebrating an artist described as a "whirlwind of contradictions."
Above the reception desk, a policeman in heels rides a donkey. On nearby lobby walls are boxers, a gorilla, a horse-pig hybrid and a nameless orange monster. These creatures populate Cullen's mythical universe and they're your constant companions in the 113-suite property from Melbourne's trio of Art Hotels. Each hotel immerses you in its chosen artist, with originals and prints (The Cullen has 450 works) throughout.
The Cullen, opened in late 2009, is the ballsy older sister to the gentle Olsen and whimsical Blackman hotels. It's also the smallest. The intimacy suits the art's intensity and staff members convey an unaffected, genuine friendliness which softens your sudden encounters with a stiletto-wearing Ned Kelly or a slogan-daubed fibreglass cow. Their warmth accentuates the humour in Cullen's art. It dilutes the shock value, dissipates the unease.
"My art isn't wallpaper: you notice it."
When I arrive in the sixth floor Growler Penthouse (named after Cullen's 2007 dog portrait) the real-flame log fire has already been switched on and the soft charcoal carpet and fat sofa lend cosiness to a large space which otherwise, with concertina glass doors forming almost two entire walls, might have seemed a little too in touch with the Melbourne Antarctic winds whistling across the rooftop veranda.
There's a knock and a staffer arrives at the door with a bag of little cow-shaped cookies and a card from general manager Josh O'Brien. Inside, he's written a personal greeting using different-coloured felt tip pens: pink, brown and blue. Very cute; very Cullen.
The iconic Growler print hangs above an eight-seater white dining table in the suite's living area. There are two bathrooms - the bedroom's ensuite has a spa tub - and a kitchen more fully equipped than my own, with microwave, dishwasher, hobs, pots, pans and utensils. Like its sister hotels, the Cullen is designed to accommodate those who can't bear to leave.
Could you live for long with Cullen's art? He is, after all, a man who first attracted attention while still at art school by chaining a rotting pig's head to his leg and dragging it around until it fell apart. His early work involved dead cats, and decay and disfigurement still dominate his painted comments on Australian society. He's courted controversy throughout his career and even his 2000 Archibald Prize winning portrait of David Wenham offended some critics, who deemed it 'crude' and 'cartoonish.' Most, however, revel in Cullen's punk sensibilities, the pathos and humour in his work and his flair with colour.
I think the best way to really appreciate this sort of art is from the sumptuous depths of a pillowy bed, cocooned in ultra-high-thread-count bedding, warmed by a deep, hot spa bath and with a belly full of delicious fresh dumplings from the hotel's HuTong Dumpling Bar.
Let's be honest - it's the best way to appreciate anything.
But when you're feeling all safe and cuddly and relaxed, the paintings do seem to show their sensitive side. The scarlet, topless woman-kangaroo hybrid, the Ku Klux Clansman and Ned Kelly in the print above my bed reveal a myriad of subtleties (with the helpful commentary of one of the suite's11 art books) and instead of suffering the nightmares one might fear with another giant Kelly holding the bed at point-blank gunpoint from the wall, I enjoy a sound, peaceful sleep.
Next morning's sunlight reveals the decadent dimensions of my wraparound veranda. It's large enough for a major party and with a barbecue, another big dining table, abundant chairs and sun loungers, it's frequently put to exactly that use. Beyond, Melbourne stretches out before you, Prahran Market directly beneath and the Dandenong Ranges way out on the horizon. Locals know the market as a fresh produce goldmine, from seafood to boutique breads. If you decide to use your Cullen kitchen, superior ingredients are close at hand.
In epicurean Melbourne you can send yourself insane trying to choose the next great restaurant, so it's almost a relief to find HuTong and George Risk's The Terrace - both critically acclaimed - in the hotel. A wine bar, Magnolia, opens in October and promises edibles from London-trained chef Adam Spencer as well as interior by Universal Design Studio's Mark Simpson.
It's easy to stay in a hotel and never really look at the exterior, but here you absolutely should. The zinc-coated brick building is itself a work of modern art and its apple-green cube balconies turn it into a glowing, giant installation at night. Cullen's art is all about vivid colour, and bright shades like this punctuate a mainly monochromatic backdrop, with splashes like the scarlet entrance carpet and matching bikes for hire.
From The Terrace's bar, I can observe the lobby, a social hub where guests often pause to chat with reception staff or comment on the paintings. It's a bit of a hangout, so much more fun than the transit-lounge style lobbies in some larger hotels. I spot fellow
TLTB contributor, How to Look Good Naked's Gok Wan, checking in. He's basing himself at The Cullen while filming in Melbourne. Now there's a stamp of style authority.
The Growler Penthouse has very quickly begun to feel like home. More luxury apartment than suite, it's been a cosy but grand private eyrie on top of a treasure box of modern art. I say a wistful goodbye to the odd cast of characters on the walls. I enjoyed having them as outlandish roommates.
Checking out, I bump into an old friend who's in residence at The Cullen. He's an underwear model, currently hired to promote towels by taking a public, nearly-nude shower in a Melbourne department store for a couple of hours a day. He's on his way to work. "Um, keep warm," I say, as we hug beneath a horse-pig-donkey creature.
It's quite an Adam Cullen moment: a mix of beauty, the bizarre and life's poignant comedy. Perhaps if you stay here long enough, you become one with the art.
Check in: 164 Commercial Road, Prahran, 3181, Victoria, Australia
Ultimate Luxury: The Growler Penthouse (Our TLTB correspondent's new favourite melbourne bolt-hole)
Most Indulgent Moment: No in-house restaurant, but enjoys strong links with two stylish eateries which peel off its ground-floor. Terrace Bar & Bistro and seductive Chinese restaurant Hutong . eating in either is pretty indulgent.
Insider Secrets: Pack your best art-appreciation phrases and say things like "Cullen is the Damien Hirst of Australian art"..that should impress the stylish staff
The Little Things: Cow-shaped cookies and a multi-inked welcome card from the hotel
Junior Luxies: A bit too cool for school really (although ther are not actually banned -cots can be hired)
Dress code: Relaxed black or retro-punk in honour of the artwork
Perfect luggage: This is Tumi territory
Dent in the platinum:
Luxury Links: www.artserieshotels.com.au
Amy Cooper 14/9/10