When Soho House founder and CEO Nick Jones decided the empty square footage above his existing Café Boheme in London should be dedicated to a members-only club (it was deemed too cramped for a restaurant), little did he know he was creating a global empire that would become the epitome of cosmopolitan cool. Fast forward a couple of decades and the Soho House stable has snowballed to include multiple 'Houses' in major cities around the world; English country retreats Babington House in Somerset and Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire; a roll call of more than 80,000 members; online retailer Soho Home for members to replicate the look in their own pad; and spa business Cowshed. The group's 25th and latest outpost, Soho House Hong Kong, recently opened at the Sai Ying Pun end of Des Voeux Road.
While not the first House in Asia – that accolade goes to Mumbai, which opened last November – Soho House Hong Kong is currently the only one in East Asia and the largest of the lot. An impressive 11,000sqm (120,000sqf), it occupies an entire 28-storey building, with sweeping views over Victoria Harbour on one side and the urban landscape of Hong Kong Island crowned by the Peak on the other. Houses in other cities are often located in repurposed historic buildings; here, the company's in-house design teams worked with developer Nan Fung to shape the brand-new property exactly how they wanted it. However, similar to the Soho House's other clubs, all of which are renowned for their interiors, the team eschewed the cookie-cutter design approach, preferring to give Hong Kong something its own rather than simply replicating what had worked elsewhere.
"Most of the inspiration for the decor comes from the city and key aspects of the club reflect what Hong Kong members want – the kind of food they'd like to eat, the events they'd enjoy going to, the way the gym is set up," says Min Shrimpton, head of communications for the group. "The design team moved to Hong Kong before they began designing and assimilated themselves into the place and its culture to get a feel for what it was like."
"It's a new build, so we couldn't take many clues from the architecture as inspiration. Instead, we looked at the area and the city itself," says Linda Boronkay, design director of Soho House's operations in the UK, Europe and Asia. "Soho House Hong Kong is inspired by the city's culture and energy, which is represented in its style, from the colour palettes and patterns to the fabrics and furniture. The design team watched movies set in the city such as In The Mood For Love by [director] Wong Kar-wai, which displays a very exciting facet of Hong Kong set in the 1960s. The atmosphere and the colour palette of that movie in particular provided a lot of inspiration, but we also spent a lot of time in the city."
While London's White City House in the former BBC studios has a 1970s vibe to reflect its programme-making heyday, for example, the Hong Kong club is unmistakably Hong Kong, though you almost can't put your finger on what makes it so. Nostalgic sets from Wong Kar-wai films spring to mind but with a more sophisticated and modern twist. Patterns and fabrics in a fairly subdued palette studded with rich jewel tones take reference from the city's colours and textures while beige, featured at countless upscale Hong Kong venues, doesn't get a look in. And therein lies the brand genius. Contemporary without being bland, comfortably luxurious without being flashy, the Houses are a perfect blend of local and international style, full of character and, quite simply, achingly cool.
"Hong Kong is the city of contrasts – for me, that's what makes it so irresistible and addictive. You find futuristic skyscrapers next to small alleyways and markets that feel like you've stepped back in time hundreds of years. Our aim was to capture this essence by creating a sense of escapism: in contrast to the contemporary cityscape we were inspired by more traditional furniture pieces and, similarly, with our choices of finishes, every surface has substance, warmth and depth. We used reclaimed materials as well as vintage pieces sourced from European markets to create this layered effect. We also tried to stay away from 'fashionable' design which would feel dated in a few years' time," says Boronkay.
"The designers wanted it to reflect Hong Kong without being gimmicky but still retain the essence of a Soho House," says Shrimpton. "It doesn't look like any of the other Houses and yet the feel is there as well as little touches that are reminiscent of the others. Our food and beverage menus offer signature House staples as well as specially created Hong Kong favourites too."
Currently taking centre stage are the bars, restaurants, lounges, event spaces and private dining areas that occupy floors 25-30 and are linked by lifts as well as an internal staircase. Comfy sofas, armchairs and lush potted palms abound and the main club space on the 29th floor features a fabulous art deco-influenced bar. Up on the top floor is the '70s-inspired Pool Room, complete with rattan furniture, daybeds and a small pool – more for party antics and splashing around the swim-up bar than for serious laps (the giant glitter ball suspended above it gives the game away if you weren't sure). The various areas have atmosphere even when few people are there but when more populated, the buzz is palpable.
The works of art throughout are particularly inspired, selected by ex-Hong Konger Kate Bryan, who worked for the now-defunct Cat Street Gallery and is now head of Soho House Collections. Celebrating the local art scene, the collection solely features artists who have been born or are based in Hong Kong, such as Lee Kit and Firenze Lai.
Equally impressive is Soho Active, the gym on the 11th-15th floors. Complete with boxing ring, state-of-the-art machines and spaces for yoga and other classes, it is refreshingly retro in look. Think matte-black equipment, white tiled walls and more plants, rather than the typical temple of glass and stainless steel.
"The group's philosophy is to design a home away from home experience with all the amenities a member could ever wish for. Basically everything has got to be like you would have it at home, but better. Functionality and comfort are all key factors and something Nick Jones is so hot on," explains Boronkay. "The clubs should also have an appeal that is only relevant to that specific location, so when a member travels between clubs and around the world they have a very strong sense of culture and place. They also should look like places you can't recreate, which we achieve with one-off vintage pieces and other items made by local craftspeople. We are not a commercial hotel chain, we don't copy and paste ideas, so that keeps the design fresh, which is always inspired by geographical location, history of architecture and demographic."
Though Soho House was created as the antithesis to stuffy gentlemen's clubs it does have its regulations. Membership is open only to those working in or having a connection to creative industries in the city such as film, fashion, the media and the arts. Favouring a more relaxed dress code, the wearing of suits and ties is explicitly discouraged as are phone calls and laptops, which can only be used in the Drawing Room on the 27th floor and until 6pm. In the name of privacy, there's a no-photo rule and posting on social media about fellow members is especially frowned upon.
Although Soho House Hong Kong is still a work in progress – the co-working space Soho Works, which will run over nine floors, will open in 2020 – the fledgling club already looks set to be a major player in the city's scene. Members are treated to a regular smorgasbord of free events and are encouraged to mingle.
"Nick is constantly reminding us that it's not about us designers, it's always about the customer, it's always about the member," says Boronkay. "We are very detail focused, every single element has to be right so the members' experience will be right. It is about being relevant, responsive and respectful as well as creative."