No-Hook Nation: Why Is It So Hard to Find a Place to Hang Our Stuff?

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When planning rooms, designers often overlook or choose to omit the simple amenity that would keep coats, purses, and laptop bags from ending up on the floor. Why?

hook flickr 615.jpg
Flickr user Beta-J

The midday meal on a sunny Saturday started promisingly: The middle-aged tourist couple had successfully made it to the correct block of lower Manhattan, down a narrow street pockmarked by construction, and into the stylish interior of one of the city's tastiest burger joints. They scored a tall, round table and hoisted themselves up on the stools. They stowed their two parkas and a backpack on another stool, then took a look at the menu. They'd barely read past the onion rings when their belongings fell. The husband hopped down, picked them up, and tried to balance them again on the padded round top of the stool. He jiggled and fiddled for several long minutes until his wife hissed, "Sit down." He sat, then continued to fuss over the precariously perched items through the entire meal.

One embarrassed wife, one flustered husband, and the ripe beginnings of an afternoon's bad mood, all due to the lack of the cheapest, simplest fixture known to man: a hook. That barely glorified nail in the wall or tip of a tree branch.

Restaurants, bars, bathrooms, hair salons, manicure shops, dentists' offices, hotels—all the places people go and stay a while—routinely ignore the fact that people carry things. Even dressing rooms, which should be hook heaven, are often stingy with storage hardware. And without a hook to hang your stuff on, you have two unappealing options: hold onto it, which is uncomfortable, or put it on the floor, which is dirty.

"I think [hooks are] seen as a kind of pimple," says one designer. "Sometimes it's the simplest things that you forget."

America's chronic hooklessness is perhaps not a pressing issue on the order of healthcare or climate. It's more of a "this doesn't have to be so hard" kind of thing, like fighting with unopenable blister packaging or those too-sticky price tags that perversely mar an exciting new purchase. But this lack of basic consideration cuts in a personal way when you have to, say, hold onto your purse while dropping your pants in a hook-free public bathroom. On a moving train. And oftentimes women don't exactly sit down. While hurtling and swaying and praying, you know what would be great? Someplace to put the bag!

Those on both the design and use side of the hook agree: More can be done.

"There seem never to be enough hooks," says David Ashen, whose Dash Design firm creates hotel, store and restaurant interiors. He's quick to acknowledge both the need for hooks in life—recalling a recent drink with a friend and "the first thing he did was hook his bag under the bar"—as well as the tendency of designers like himself to overlook them: "I think they're seen as a kind of pimple."

"As a designer you try to think of all the functional components," Ashen said. "Sometimes it's the simplest things that you forget. Sometimes we get so focused on the aesthetic, that we forget about the use." A current client, a New York hotel that's being renovated into a high-end Marriott, reminded him. "We just had a discussion about hooks in the bathroom. There weren't enough. We have a small bathroom and we have to optimize storage," he said, making space for robes, toiletries bags, and a hairdryer, not to mention towels (although bars are better for towel drying, he allows).

"Guest experience" is the buzzword in hospitality these days, so there's no excuse for irritating folks with their own belongings, says Dr. Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. Like Dash, Robson thinks the main culprit behind hooklessness is a lack of forethought, due to the inclination of many designers toward form over function. (And while forgetting hooks, they debate whether the paint color should be Cream or Cloud. "People will beat themselves to a pulp over finishes," she muses.)

"Even the very highest-end hotels drop the ball here," she says, recalling a visit to the glamorous Copacabana Palace on the beach in Rio, where the plush bathing facilities had everything but a hook. "You open this glorious shower door, and you're in the middle of this marble expanse you have to make your way across to get to a towel." Although she rarely gets to review plans for hotels before they're built, Robson says that as a teacher she's trying to influence future attentiveness: "We try to inculcate this thought process with the next generation of hotel architects and operators."

Architects and designers agree there are obstacles on the path toward hookfulness, however. A wall or door has to be made strong enough to support a hook and the dozens of pounds that may be hung on it. Paint will be damaged by rubbing coats and bags, so the surface behind must be hardy. The design and placement of the hooks themselves should not present a hazard, and the Americans with Disabilities Act even prescribes exactly how. Then there's the potential liability to businesses. "By providing a hook, it's almost a suggestion, 'this will be safe here.' The restaurant doesn't want to be held responsible," says Robson. And of course hooks, especially attractive ones, cost money.

Is part of the problem that people are shlepping more stuff around? Some say yes, particularly when it comes to hotels and people's penchant for bringing their lifestyle with them, whether that means a yoga mat, a Sephora's worth of body products, or a Kindle, iPad, and laptop. Others say no, because many live their lives with little more than an iPhone with a credit card stuck in back. Whatever the trend, purses are eternal, and the proliferation of portable purse hangers shows that handbag-carriers are determined to have their hooks. And why not? Some fancy restaurants in the U.S., and even not-so-fancy ones in other countries, will bring over a small bench or mini-hatrack to raise ladies' bags off the floor.

The floor of a hair-strewn salon is a particularly uninviting place for a handbag, but that is exactly what's offered to clients at the gleaming 13,000-square-foot Arrojo Studio in New York City. Led by celebrity hairstylist Nick Arrojo, shouldn't this temple to vanity have a better option?


 "It's a fair enough question, absolutely, we want to give the best service we can," says Nick's brother Andrew Arrojo, the salon's press and marketing manager. "The stations are custom-made, and I suppose in that sense it could be incorporated, but it would require the forethought to think of it. We do have a cloakroom, and anyone can check a bag for free."

The quest for hooks is hardly just the province of the pampered. The American Restroom Association, which was founded eight years ago to advocate for better restroom access, especially for those with health problems, has issued design recommendations that include a call for shelves and coat hooks. (The need for hooks by people with colostomy bags is so acute that some carry their own.) "We didn't have that in initially, that was user feedback," said ARA cofounder Robert Brubaker. "Hooks and shelves was really uncontroversial."

"It's almost breathtaking sometimes what people don't get," said Brubaker. "There's stuff that just seems intuitively obvious, that's not." By hook or by crook, perhaps this little way to make life easier will become more widely embraced by those who shape accommodations for the public.

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Karen Loew is a writer and editor in New York, currently at work on Alone in the Valley, a nonfiction book about civic life in small-town Virginia and its implications for national politics.

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