By Spencer Bailey | Portrait by Cynthia Lynn
Since its start 20 years ago on Greek Street in London, the private members’ club Soho House has become an unofficial hangout for leading creatives and executives in the worlds of art, design, fashion, and media. There are now six locations in the U.K. (plus the Dean Street Townhouse hotel), five in North America (New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Chicago), and one in Berlin. The newest addition, in Istanbul, opens this spring. A Barcelona location is on the way, as are new spaces in the U.K. and New York. At the center of this bustling, inimitable enterprise is Nick Jones, its unassuming 51-year-old founder and CEO.
Unlike other prominent and influential real estate and hospitality entrepreneurs, such as Ian Schrager and André Balazs, Jones isn’t entirely synonymous with the brand he created. His is a quieter, perhaps humbler approach. But like them, he has built a company that offers more than just spaces for lounging, relaxing, eating, sleeping, drinking, and networking. Soho House is a cultural force, and Jones is the master of ceremonies, leading its direction across the board, from development and membership to menus and interior design. His approach to the business has been so successful that Soho House Group caught the attention of billionaire Ron Burkle, whose investment fund, Yucaipa, purchased a major stake of it in 2012. (The New York Times reported Burkle’s buy was about $383 million for 60 percent of the company.)
Speaking with Jones is a pleasant, unfettered affair. The man is refreshingly genuine and says and does whatever is in his head and gut—most likely a result of the many insights and experiences he has picked up throughout his rich life, which includes an impressively frenetic travel schedule. Surface met up with him at the restaurant at Soho House New York last fall to discuss how design informs his life and work, and his next steps for the business. >
This year marks two decades since you started Soho House. How do you view the company’s evolution looking back?
With surprise. When I set up Soho House, I never dreamed that it would end up being in many cities around the world and with the membership it’s got. I’ve been lucky.
Your work at Soho House, in my mind, has really been about designing across various platforms, from the membership to the architecture. Do you consider yourself a designer or, at the very least, a design thinker?
I was never trained to be a designer. I never went to college to study design. I’ve always tried to create environments that I would feel comfortable in and like to hang out in—which are comfy, friendly, unpretentious. I’ve done it based on what I think I would like, and I’ve hoped other people would like the same thing.
How did you go about creating the interiors of the first Soho House? How has the brand’s design approach morphed?
The original Soho House location has held up well over 20 years and will be refurbished at some point this year. In a way, that one designed itself. It was stripped all back. The reason it was called Soho House was because it was literally a house in Soho. It was an early Georgian building with lots of little rooms that are a bit like a rabbit run. As soon as people went inside, they felt comfortable and at ease.
When we went onto creating the next houses, we didn’t say we had to keep designing Georgian houses just because that’s what we did the first time around. We always look at the building and city we’re in and pay respect to that.
Tell me about the Chicago location, one of the newest and a king-size affair.
The Chicago space is great. It was a beautiful warehouse built in the early 1900s. Soho House just fit in it like a glove. When you find a building where there are plenty of windows, hotel rooms work. That building had real soul as soon as I walked into it. Usually, it takes me less than five minutes to decide whether a building is right.
How do you ultimately decide on a city, neighborhood, or building?
To be honest, a lot of it has been luck. I’d love to think that we choose areas we knew were going to be popular. When I went to Shoreditch for the first time, I lived in London and didn’t really know where Shoreditch was. I went because I liked the guy who was showing me the area. I didn’t want to be rude and say no, which is the policy I always have. You never know what you’re going to find, and as soon as I went into the building in Shoreditch, I said yes to it. Even before thinking about the area. It had such soul.
In Chicago, we looked at other sites before going to the Fulton Market neighborhood. The first site we looked at—and we would have probably gone with if other things had gone our way—was in the Gold Coast area, which in hindsight is totally the wrong place to put a Soho House. We didn’t go there not because we sat down and made some shrewd decision about it. We didn’t go there because I don’t think we got the commission to do what we wanted to do there. We were forced not to go there. It was the right decision in the end, though, because we ended up with this fabulous building in what we feel is really the right area.
You’ve worked with many architects and designers over the years, and you now have an in-house design team and a design director. Once you have these spaces, how do you go about the design process?
We’ve worked with some great designers: Ilse Crawford, Martin Brudnizki, Alex Michaelis, Tom Dixon. I’ve obviously learned a lot from them. But at the same time, we always knew internally the sort of spaces we wanted to create, and a lot of the time we were directing other people to where we wanted to be. Eventually, we thought it was easier to go in-house. This has worked very well given the way I work. I’m a nightmare to work with when on a schedule, because I think design is a bit of a process, and I can’t decide everything two years out. As you fill the space, things change.
In fact, this morning we were just about starting the build on our new site on Ludlow Street [on the Lower East Side in Manhattan], and I wanted to have just one more look at it. This was at, like, 7:30 this morning, and we changed a lot of it around already. You look at it and you go, “Why didn’t we do that before?” It’s just how it works: Because we’re internal, they’re busily drawing up Ludlow now. It doesn’t cost us any more money, because we haven’t started building it yet. We’ll end up with what I hope will be a better flow and a better product as a result.
How would you describe the ethos behind Soho House’s aesthetic? A New York Times article once described it as “Royal-Geographical-Society-meets-Dwell-magazine.”
Whatever that means. [Laughs]
What’s your mindset when it comes to design and Soho House?
My mindset is we want to keep evolving our design. We don’t want it to be the same all the time. It’s easy to find a way of designing something and sticking with it because people seem to like it. Ludlow House will be very different from Soho House [New York] in its design because the building is very different; we want to put different furniture in it and different finishes on it. How I describe it is: Whenever I walk into a completed Soho House when no one’s in there, I want it to have lots of atmosphere. I don’t want to have to rely on it being full before it starts having a nice feel. The key, I think, is that people have got to feel confident and comfortable and not awkward in the space.
Wouldn’t you also say that part of what makes Soho House special is its selective membership process?
You’re dead right. You add the layers. Designers layer—you add layers of art. A very interesting layer we spend a lot of time on is our art collection. It’s also the people who come in. We have a selection process on how people can get in. That’s an important part of what we’re trying to create. Then, on top of it, there are the people who work here, the food on the plates, the style of glass the drinks come in. It’s all layered up to hopefully create an experience that makes people say, “Yeah, I really like that, I’m going to come back.”We’ve been in New York for 11 years now, and it’s as popular as it’s ever been. It hasn’t always been this way. We’ve had moments where it’s been really quite bad—when those layers have all gone wrong.
How did you fix those layers?
We had to look at our membership and which members were fitting into what we first set up the club to be.
So you had to refresh the membership just as you would reupholster an old sofa?
It’s like when you go through your wardrobe and say, “Okay, well, that might not be good. I might not have worn that last year, but next year I will, so I’ll keep it.” We cleaned out the wardrobe, and then we refurbished and looked at our spaces and how people wanted to use them. It’s been a process.
Let’s discuss your thoughts on the hospitality industry. In what ways do you see the service realm of Soho House changing?
I think we’re in a really good position generally. From where the world was 25 years ago to where it is now—there are some really brilliant operators out there now, some really young people who have come into the industry who 20 or 25 years ago wouldn’t have due to its limitations then. I remember when I was coming into the industry, which was more than 30 years ago. It was at the bottom of the job spectrum. But I loved doing it anyway. I do this because nothing gives me more joy than what we deliver as a company: a comfortable bed to sleep in, a great shower, a great treatment, or something good to eat or drink.
I think hospitality is a really good industry to go into. No technology is going to take over it; you can’t find a computer program that’s gonna feed people or provide a bed for them. Eating and drinking and sleeping are going to be around for a long time.
There were days [early in my career] that were incredibly hard work. You’d be working 80 to 90 hours a week. The conditions weren’t good. But the industry has changed a lot. It’s a much better industry to be working in—there are many more talented people coming into the field. People in hospitality are much more passionate and knowledgeable about food, for example, than they used to be. These are young kids who are obsessed with food and opening their own restaurants. It’s a very exciting time ahead for us.
What do you think about the future of the members’ club business? We’re now seeing it enter the office-space arena with Neuehouse, which currently has a New York location and is soon to open spaces in L.A. and London.
People have been entering this space for a long time. When we entered the space, we weren’t the first people to do so. These clubs had been around for decades. I think we were the first to do it in one city, and then take it to another city. There will always be others trying to do the same thing. I wish them all the best of luck. It’s great to see. At least it tells me what I’m doing is not a bad idea after all.
To read the rest of the interview with Nick Jones, get the February issue here.