You can’t yet see it through the scaffolding and muddy internal corridors, but it’s taking shape, a stone’s throw from the gleaming skyscrapers of the City of London. “There’ll be a lot of Murano glass,” says managing director Brian Clivaz, one of the most influential figures in the ever-changing landscape of private members’ clubs in London. “We commissioned Seguso, which has also created pieces for the Vatican – not for the current Pope, I’m talking about centuries ago. They’ve been around since the early 14th century.”
The 58,000sq ft Devonshire Club (standard membership, available from January, £2,000 per annum, plus £2,000 joining fee; debenture membership – available now and lasting 10 years, with resale value and other added benefits – £20,000) is under construction for an April 2016 opening in EC2, and it’s just one name that is raising the bar for private members’ clubs in London. New business clubs are launching in Mayfair, floors of bedrooms are being added to luxury stalwarts, and legends of the scene are being invigorated with extraordinary new interiors. As London asserts itself as a city like no other – “the most desirable capital in which to live for entrepreneurs from all over the world”, as Richard Caring, owner of the Birley Group of clubs, puts it – these are the spaces that serve as the drawing rooms to its key players.
Clivaz – who cuts a wonderfully Hitchcock-like figure and exudes all the essential bonhomie for the job – was behind the success of Home House in Portman Square and the radical reboot of The Arts Club in Mayfair. His Devonshire Square scheme, in association with project partner, director and shareholder Harry Harris of SUSD architects, is one of the most ambitious private members’ clubs in the capital – taking up an entire block of real estate, with a plethora of bars and restaurants, a spa and 68 bedrooms. “We want something reminiscent of La Dolce Vita,” explains Clivaz in hard hat, workman’s boots and tailored suit, overlooking what will be an expansive, elegant ground-floor winter garden. “We want that sophisticated glamour from the 1950s and 1960s. We worked with March & White, renowned for yacht interiors, and the first thing we did was create a fictional character to be our imaginary guest – an elegant young lady who likes to go powerboating and wear vintage Chanel. We asked ourselves if she would be comfortable in a certain chair, in a bedroom, in the bath…”
While Clivaz is honing the detailing on the oyster bar and brasserie that are about to materialise, 12 Hay Hill (membership from £1,200 per annum) opened in Mayfair in September this year, with similar visual elements and a shared purpose: Scandinavian midcentury furniture and marble surfaces, and an emphasis on functionality for business meetings as much as socialising. The membership list was partly founded on invitations from the international members’ concierge service Urbanologie, and while many of the members are based out of town or overseas, the majority do business within walking distance of the club. As a witty nod to the venue’s raison d’être, many of the walls are clad in soft charcoal-grey felt – a wizard touch for acoustics, but also homage to the suits that populate the meeting rooms and Jersey chef Shaun Rankin’s dining room. “We encourage people to take calls, use laptops and have meetings,” says co-founder and designer Anton Khmelnitskiy, previously a partner at Foster + Partners. “Traditional gentlemen’s clubs still aren’t the place to do business. We’ve taken some of their values and put them into a contemporary space that actually allows people to work. Ten years ago you needed your computer to send an email, now you just need a phone. You don’t need a desk any more. We have created an environment where you can meet like-minded people.”
While Khmelnitskiy has forged, essentially, an office away from the office for the Google generation – where work and play combine, with a swish dining room that looks like a mini Four Seasons and a basement bar for socialising after hours – those traditional gentlemen’s clubs are changing too. When Richard Caring, Peter Dubens (managing partner at Oakley Capital), Charles Price (son of the late US ambassador Charles Price II) and Howard Barclay (son of businessman Sir David Barclay) closed Mark’s Club (membership price on request) for refurbishment in June of this year, they brought in designer Tino Zervudachi to refresh the aesthetic before the reopening in October. Like Annabel’s and Harry’s Bar, which also changed hands when Mark Birley – the man who reinvented the London club scene back in the 1960s – sold his clubs to Caring shortly before his death in 2007, Mark’s Club carries emotional resonance for its members. For many of those returning, there may be a fear that Superman’s cape has received a tug or the Lone Ranger’s mask has been pulled off. But most will be pleasantly surprised.
“There were several ‘non-negotiables’ for the club,” explains Caring, “such as keeping the porter’s box in reception and the iconic William Morris wallpaper that graces the reception and travels all the way up to the top floor.” Birley’s comforting, magpie-like visual sensibilities are still evident: shot-silk pleated walls, paisley carpets and Moroccan side tables. Regulars will be delighted that the red dining room is still clad in red Fortuny fabric, and that the moody, gigantic 1920s oil painting In Time of Peace,by Scottish artist Robert Gemmell Hutchison, of scarlet-coated military men in rows of pews, is still upstairs, adjacent to a grand new humidor.
“The club had become something of a wilted flower,” says Zervudachi. “We ordered rich coloured silks and weaves for new upholstery and created a recessed coloured-glass light box in the ceiling of the rear dining room.” Dubens called on Zervudachi after the designer had created interiors for his private homes, and he sees the club as an extension of its members’ houses. “Mark Birley’s original idea was that this was going to be a beautiful place for people to enjoy during the week, and then at the weekend they went to their country homes,” says Dubens. “His level of detail was amazing. But there wasn’t a single comfortable chair here before. I flew to Paris with Tino when he was working with the upholsterers and sat in every single chair before it came to the club. Now everything is elegant and comfortable.”
There have been many changes at Mark’s, including the addition of a third-floor private dining room, but the club is not chasing trends. “The club feels fresh, while still being quintessentially ‘Birley’,” says Caring. A cappuccino comes in a Limoges cup and saucer with a magenta floral pattern on it; a Warhol sketch of a pink angel hangs against pink and blue Liberty wallpaper; the bar manager wears a bow tie, and his staff immaculate off-white blazers designed by textile specialists Scabal. From a theatrical Linley backgammon table to the collection of Salon champagnes and the Empire-style bronze chandelier above the bar, Mark’s Club is a modern classic – a place to go for a homemade pizza in the bar upstairs as much as the formal dining it was previously associated with.
A few streets from Mark’s, Rifat Ozbek has just finished adding new elements to the interior of Loulou’s, Robin Birley’s club-within-a-club at 5 Hertford Street (membership price on request). Ozbek – one of the most celebrated fashion designers of the 1980s and who now creates a Turkish-style cushion range under the label Yastık – has been dressing Birley’s wife Lucy for decades, hence the connection. “The original brief was to do something ‘timeless’,” says Ozbek. “After four years, it’s getting better every day.” More recently, to give the basement area a better flow, Ozbek has created what he calls “a love tunnel” in silk damask paisley patterns, from the dance floor to the lobby. He also opened up the Venetian, Bakst and Ottoman-themed dining rooms “with mirrored gothic Moorish arches – so you can now see the changing colours of every room from one place”. Along with the brief of “timeless”, Ozbek was told there was “no budget, no limits; more is more” by Birley. The result might be the most opulent club in London, even more so than before.
“Working with Rifat is immensely exciting,” says craftsman Rupert Bevan, who worked on the arches and is known for creating some of the most specialist mirrors, furniture and finishings in the UK. “The experience has been dazzling, bewildering and imaginative, unlike anything I’ve worked on before. The new project took the use of mirrors in interiors to a whole different level in terms of surface decoration and lighting. The arches use mirrored glass hand-painted in faux tortoiseshell that’s backlit with LEDs to shine pink. The effect is enchanting and compelling, drawing you into these mysterious little worlds within the club.”
London’s new clubs embrace the exotic as much as they ever did, even if some of them are now on grander scales than the likes of Mark Birley ever attempted. The interior of the Devonshire Club will incorporate elements that are a little bit Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a touch Piet Mondrian. There’ll be plenty of marble, along with midcentury furniture and carpets that look like a monochrome take on the flooring of the hallways in The Shining. The tiling on the floors of the ensuite bathrooms is modernist Mediterranean – graphic with a restrained colour palette. “The rooms are going to be uncluttered,” says Clivaz. “Often you go to a hotel and there’s too much stuff. People want a good shower, a deep bath and a TV that you can watch from a very comfortable bed. In terms of furniture, we might be the most bespoke hotel and club ever.”
Practicality to one side, every club needs a touch of fantasy. As well as producing the Murano glass that Clivaz is looking forward to, Seguso used to create pieces for the arch-postmodernist Memphis group, with its inspiring colour juxtapositions. Meanwhile, interior designer David d’Almada of Sagrada hopes that his designs for the new bedrooms at Mayfair’s The Arts Club (rooms from £600 per night; membership £2,000 per annum, plus £2,000 joining fee) allow the guest “to come back 16 times and have 16 different experiences”. A club is part retreat, part stage. “You can feel like an explorer, wandering around the different areas of Loulou’s,” says Bevan, which was exactly Ozbek’s intention: “My fashion collections had a theme – native American, Ottoman or African – and I was able to adapt that idea for a nightclub,” he explains. “There’s a Tibetan dance floor, a belle-époque entrance hall and a Venetian room. I’ve mixed fabrics, so there are three styles in a chair, just as I used to do with my clothing.” One particularly pretty embellishment at the new-look Loulou’s is a small installation of gold-leaf branches with butterflies, created by model Stella Tennant and her sister Issy.
When d’Almada took on the original task of redesigning The Arts Club (which had strayed a little into Miss Havisham territory) for its reopening in 2011, he restored prosaic aspects of the building that had been hastily fixed up after it was bombed in the Blitz. “It was my way of saying to the members that I had respect for what the club was before,” he says. At the same time, he turned the glamour dial up to 11, bleaching the grand marble staircase and putting a chunky piano-finish handrail on it. It’s Mayfair, but also pure Hollywood.
Somewhere between those two locations lies the secret of the perfect private members’ club. Clivaz says he wants his new space to be “unashamedly glamorous”; Caring wants “to feel part of something where every element and last detail has been carefully considered to enhance and inform the experience”, while for Dubens, it’s a simple, certain frisson: “I remember coming to Mark’s Club at around 23, sitting at the bar drinking a whisky and thinking, ‘Wow – I’m really lucky to be in here.’” Wow factor is everything.