Co-working spaces with the luxe factor

Enterprising champions of the co-working ecosystem are evolving the concept for professionals seeking a business-meets-members’ club vibe. Kate Spicer reports

NeueHouse’s New York branch, which draws design inspiration from the New York Public Library
NeueHouse’s New York branch, which draws design inspiration from the New York Public Library

Yves Béhar is driving across the Golden Gate Bridge in his Tesla, heading home to San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. As one of the most important industrial designers of the information age, Béhar’s CV is full of products that predicted rather than followed trends. He designed Nicholas Negroponte’s affordable laptops for disadvantaged children; he was early to wireless and wearable tech. His latest project, however, is not a gadget or an app. It’s an alternative to the office.

Béhar has turned his attention to the co-working trend that has emerged in the past 10 years. Estimates of the global number of shared office spaces vary, but what’s certain is that growth has been dramatic. Despite this, Tom Carroll, a head of corporate research at property company JLL, estimates that in 2015 less than 10 were “genuinely deserving of any luxury tag”.

From left: NeueHouse co-founders James O’Reilly, Joshua Abram and Alan Murray 
From left: NeueHouse co-founders James O’Reilly, Joshua Abram and Alan Murray 

Béhar’s new space, Canopy, on Fillmore Street, not far from his home, refines the co-work concept for what he calls “a calm, focused, more mature crowd” that previously might not have considered it. Desk spots sold out long before it opened in October; it is the first of what he says will be many.

“It’s a macro phenomenon that people are doing more independent work out of choice,” says Béhar. “Those who are good at what they do can consult, advise and work to their own beat.” According to research body Pew, 53 per cent of professional and business services in the US are supplied by the self-employed – and the UK Office for National Statistics says the number of self-employed workers in property, technical professions, finance and insurance has risen from 459,000 to 789,000 in the past 20 years.

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This clientele, says Béhar, is not adequately served by the co-work market. “People enjoy working close to home, dream of it, in fact. Long commutes are the worst thing about modern work culture – especially to Silicon Valley. There’s a lack of working spaces in central neighbourhoods. At Canopy we’re surrounded by two-storey residential buildings, by coffee shops and restaurants. We are a five- or 10-minute walk from home for most of our members.”

Paying an average monthly rate of around $1,000 a desk, Canopy’s 40 or so founding members are not just plucky millennials running startups. Among those who have taken desks are, says Béhar, “venture capitalists, tech entrepreneurs and senior execs who want to work ‘from home’ a couple of days a week.”

San Francisco’s Canopy is furnished with classics from the midcentury onwards  
San Francisco’s Canopy is furnished with classics from the midcentury onwards  

Los Angeles architects M-Projects created a bright and unfussy mix of public and private desk space ranged over 850sq m of white-oak chevron flooring. Office furniture is by Herman Miller and includes Béhar’s own Sayl chairs and Public Office Landscape desk system. Lighting is by Michael Anastassiades for Flos. “We also have futurist classics from the midcentury onwards that were pioneering in their time for modernity and ergonomics,” says Béhar – among them pieces by Joe Colombo, Alexander Girard, Stilnovo and Don Chadwick. Béhar describes the space as “a beautifully designed respite devoid of trivial distractions. There will be no foosball tables. And if our members are going to play ping pong, it’ll be after work, at home, with their kids.”

The co-work idiom comes loaded with ideological added value: that of a self-supporting and self-promoting ecosystem. It was never going to remain confined to an audience that needs ping pong and free beer as fuel. This is where Béhar and early entrants to the high-end co-workspace step in.

From left: Amir Mortazavi, Yves Béhar and Steve Mohebi are the masterminds behind Canopy 
From left: Amir Mortazavi, Yves Béhar and Steve Mohebi are the masterminds behind Canopy 

Jon Hunt, who sold Foxtons estate agency in 2007 for a reported £360m and now owns developers Ocubis, saw opportunity, if not the full co-work ecosystem, early on when he opened Kensington Pavilion in 2011. Complete with its Ivy Brasserie, this was the first upmarket co-work offering in the UK. Some 80 per cent of Pavilion members are local and 75 per cent are in finance. “It’s mainly former City people running their own funds,” says Hunt. “There was a realisation that today’s entrepreneurs want local, individual and well-run business clubs. Let’s face it, these guys can work on their smartphones from a park bench. They don’t want a big, expensive, fully staffed-up office or to slog into the City; they want great surroundings, courteous service, like-minded people and good coffee.”

James O’Reilly is one of the three co-founders of NeueHouse, the private members’ workspace with two clubs in the US and one opening in London in 2018 in a 6,000sq m deco building off the Strand. He has an energy and charm compounded by the trace of an enchanting County Kildare accent. He came from property, while co-founders Joshua Abram and Alan Murray came from tech, motivated by the lack of connection between “the entrepreneurial moment and big-city real estate”.

Kensington Pavilion’s decor marked it out as the first high-end co-work offering in the UK
Kensington Pavilion’s decor marked it out as the first high-end co-work offering in the UK

Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” and much of the design at NeueHouse’s Manhattan site, at 25th Street just off Madison Square, takes its lead from the city’s grand 19th-century public library. Blackened steel reading lights sit upon large oak reading tables. Once a light factory, latterly an art gallery, it mixes raw brickwork and old cast-iron radiators. Vintage kilims and other Moroccan textiles cover both concrete floor and – on cushions – the wide, deep window sills. Despite the size of the space, there’s a cosiness that’s often lost in old industrial buildings. It could be many things, from a buzzy hotel lobby, with its 9m ceilings and handmade glass chandeliers, to a private members’ club. The proportions of the place demand suitably massive works of art by locals such as Brooklyn’s Dustin Yellin. There’s waitress service at the tables, though at 5pm on a Friday only two people are enjoying alcoholic beverages. What this place doesn’t feel like is an office. Early next year it will expand substantially from five floors to seven, from 4,650sq m to 6,500sq m.

NeueHouse Hollywood – a Kilroy Realty development on Columbia Square – has a crisper feel, reflecting the relaxed lifestyle-led design of Californian modernism. Spread over 8,200sq m, the space has an atmosphere somewhere between museum of modern art and Richard Neutra beach pad. One half is filled with long sofas, rugs, open shelving and tables full of books. The other sees private offices (on the upper floors) contained within metal-framed moveable units – a design feature shared with the New York space. One NY unit belongs to David B Heller, the former securities trader once tipped as a future CEO of Goldman Sachs. He and his small staff’s workspace is barely 3m x 3m. “This is what he has chosen,” says O’Reilly, “a hotshot banker turned hotelier [The Standard] turned owner of a basketball team [the Philadelphia 76ers].” What all the areas share “is a physical layout that encourages informal encounters between members and fosters collaboration,” says O’Reilly.

Jon Hunt opened Kensington Pavilion in 2011 
Jon Hunt opened Kensington Pavilion in 2011 

Indeed, co-working spaces are increasingly appreciated for nurturing creative thinking and innovation. Their early proponents were idealists who wanted structurally flat and professionally supportive communities (in a 2005 blog post, San Francisco co-work pioneer Brad Neuberg wrote: “We begin the day with a short meditation and [sit in a] circle [where we then] set our personal and work intentions and check in physically and emotionally with where we are”). However, the current mid-market iterations of this property sector – such as global co-work chain WeWork recently valued at $16bn and described by the WSJ as “one of the world’s most valuable startups” – are increasingly home to breakout teams from blue chips looking to rub shoulders with innovators. Charlie Simpson, partner at KPMG’s Global Strategy Group, says, “We first moved to WeWork [in London’s Moorgate] a year ago when some strategy and digital consultants were helping a FTSE 100 client team develop an idea. The venture didn’t move forward, but the company still works out of the space to help it innovate. We benefit from spending time there.”

Barclays too sends its fintech teams out to co-work environments. Richard Heggie, head of High Growth & Entrepreneurs, says, “We need to create the right environment for our colleagues to foster creative thinking and innovation… and base some of our internal teams at our Rise innovation hubs [in London, Manchester and New York, among other locations] or Eagle Labs co-workspaces [in Birmingham, Bournemouth, Brighton and Cambridge], giving colleagues the opportunity to interact with and learn from the entrepreneurial spirit of the startup community.”

The crisp, modernist interior of NeueHouse Hollywood
The crisp, modernist interior of NeueHouse Hollywood

NeueHouse members might bump into Hillary Clinton, who has used the Hollywood space for meetings – and has also spoken there. (The talks programme is taken seriously; O’Reilly mentions that the artist Christo Vladimirov Javacheff came to speak to the Manhattan membership, while club president Sabine Heller is keen to get in Ai Weiwei.) Salman Rushdie is a regular visitor in New York.

Judy McGrath, former chairwoman and CEO of MTV Networks, chose to make NeueHouse the home of her new company Astronauts Wanted, which creates online content for the Generation Z market. “The formal spaces of my past corporate experience did not lend themselves to the entrepreneurs’ spirit of adventure. I had seen many other ‘shared’ workspaces, but none had the ambition of NeueHouse,” says McGrath. “Everyone who comes to meet us is immediately entranced by the design and the atmosphere. It feels alive with the kind of people you would join on an adventure, or at the very least for a lively dinner.”

The relaxed working conditions at Waterhouse Square, one of WeWork’s London spaces
The relaxed working conditions at Waterhouse Square, one of WeWork’s London spaces

NeueHouse, like Canopy, is oversubscribed. Béhar describes his selection process thus: “I want to curate a diverse mix of businesses, so it’s like an extended dinner party. I want a group of people you could enjoy sitting next to and learning from.” O’Reilly agrees. “You absolutely have to be the right business and the right person. It’s not just about being able to afford the rent. Our membership committee is looking for people who are bucking the trend, who are unconventional and radical in their thinking and operating outside a traditional work paradigm.” Interestingly, the former North America membership director of Soho House, Tim Geary, joined NeueHouse in 2014.

It is essential here to introduce a character who looms rather large over the reinvention of the members’ club scene. While high-end co-work is inspired by those aforementioned early collaborative ideals, it is also influenced by the atmosphere Nick Jones created for Soho House. These spaces borrow as much – if not more – from hospitality as they do from any concept of workspace.

Soho Works, within walking distance of Liverpool Street
Soho Works, within walking distance of Liverpool Street

“I love what Nick has done,” says O’Reilly. “We didn’t spend much time researching the existing co-working category; the hospitality industry was the most fertile ground for learning.” A century ago, the idea of a club where work was discussed was unthinkable, and the old‑style gentlemen’s clubs in St James’s had rules to this effect. The new generation of clubs such as Jones’s have no such conditions. But these new private members’ clubs have now moved towards workspaces. “Soho House used to be a place where you could relax and unwind and get away from work,” says Jones. “Now some of our clubs are packed with laptops from 8am. It’s wonderful that people want to work away from big corporates, but as with everything it’s about balance and ours had swung too far one way.”

Ironically, but perhaps inevitably, Soho House has entered the co-work market with Soho Works, a London space opened in 2015 within walking distance of Liverpool Street. Another is due to open in West Hollywood in 2017.

Floors were removed from New York’s Spring Place to create more height
Floors were removed from New York’s Spring Place to create more height

Another co-workspace drawing on the private members’ club ethos is Spring Place. Its 9,300sq m and four levels of concrete panels and gallery in New York were once six aesthetically impoverished and grimly lit floors of a Verizon office. Two floors were taken out to create height and space, and two more floors of similarly spacious private office are about to be added. It is unlikely many offices have a “conversation pit” like this one, with ruby-red sheepskin on the floor and a garnet-coloured velvet sunken area around a geometric brass table. There are two long white bouclé-covered Danish midcentury sofas in the largest meeting room and a lustrous tropical plant the size of a tree bows over a glossy boardroom table for 18. Naturally, a wall of glass looks over the Hudson and Tribeca. The women on reception look like they should be on the covers of magazines, not booking restaurant tables and helicopter transfers or changing the printer cartridge.

Alessandro Cajrati Crivelli has developed both the concept and the property together with Francesco Costa. “The aim is to give no more than 80,000 members worldwide a place to work across 35 major cities within 10 years. It’s the office of the international traveller,” says Crivelli. Manhattan opened in June, LA and Brooklyn sites are in progress, and London, Hong Kong, Milan and Paris are in the pipeline.

Francesco Costa is one of the masterminds behind Spring Place 
Francesco Costa is one of the masterminds behind Spring Place 

NeueHouse’s founders are also planning multiple locations in important cities, says O’Reilly: “Three or more in New York and three in London – so you can use Covent Garden in the morning, go to your meeting in the City and then use Shoreditch in the afternoon.” Béhar wants to open even more of his small local spaces too. “Given its boutique scale of only 40 or so members, I could open another 12, easily, in San Francisco alone. Other obvious candidates are Seattle, New York on the Upper East and West Side, LA and London.”

“This is a business model to replace the need for an office. That is the future,” says Crivelli. “I’m not saying no one will rent offices any more, but sooner or later there will be a big shift.” NeueHouse board member Jay Galluzzo (who loved using the workspace so much he joined the company) concurs: “This environment is not just the future of work, it’s the right way to work.”

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