BEHIND THE CURTAIN WITH MICHAEL ACHENBAUM
Olivia Squire talks neighbourhood levelling-up and the (re)definition of creativity with the man behind Shoreditch’s forthcoming members-club-slash-hotel, The Curtain.
Michael Achenbaum is the kind of man I can’t imagine has any problem getting doors to open for him. One of the founders of NYC’s slick Gansevoort brand – a game-changer at the time of its launch in 2004 – he disregarded conventional wisdom to open the city’s first urban resort, followed by the Meatpacking District’s first high-end hotel, long before the area became a magnet for luxury logos and boutique eateries. Boundaries are clearly not something that scare Achenbaum, so it’s no surprise that for his latest project he’s tackling a whole host of new firsts: his first project in London; first non-Gansevoort-branded property; and, crucially, first members’ club-slash-hotel.
The 120-room Curtain – named not to evoke any hush-hush attitude, but after the old Curtain theatre that used to reside in this quarter of East London – is out to define a whole new category of luxury within the neighbourhood, with nine floors of differently programmed spaces segmented for the public, members and hotel guests. When I donned a hard hat for an early look at the property in February (current launch is set for May), an almost obsessive commitment to quality shone from every corner and collaborator, many of who were on site overseeing progress. Chandeliers hang from the ceilings of the public bathrooms. A column is studded with what, on closer inspection, turn out to be 2p coins. The projector in the screening room is, I’m informed, the best available, at Achenbaum’s insistence.
Whilst still experiencing the chaos of all hotels during the last stage of development, a definite Art Deco-meets-gentlemen’s club vibe is beginning to take shape, tapping into the bowler-hats-and-broadsheets era of London members’ clubs past (think whiskey lockers and a dark wood-panelled gym). However, there are enough surprises and subtleties to keep modern tastes piqued, although I’m on pain of death (or at least of never having my membership approved) if I reveal any. To recap a rumour, though: the act booked for the launch party was Prince, until unfortunate events intervened, and they’re confident of an ‘equally big’ name to headline in his place. I also witnessed a particularly irreverent addition to the ground floor that will certainly leave an impression on future visitors.
Retaining the capacity to surprise is certainly at the top of Achenbaum’s agenda in an area experiencing a surge of hotel development. From the rooftop we can see citizenM; Nobu Shoreditch is due to open around the corner this summer; and the venue for our conversation is the nearby Ace, another American import that has comfortably become part of the fabric of the neighbourhood since arriving in 2013. The need to bring something different to the table is perhaps what consolidated the venture into members’ clubs, where exclusivity and the curation of people and spaces are what generate the unexpected.
“I have a real sense that everything has been commoditised,” Achenbaum explains. “There’s much more of a focus on what’s in the neighbourhood and the experience of a hotel’s public areas, rather than the hotel rooms…I really want people to find their home in the space.” How visitors experience the property will depend on their ‘status’ (i.e. whether they are hotel guests, members or the general public), but the emphasis is on creating intrigue rather than putting up barriers – as Achenbaum says, “we want to create a sense of privacy and exclusivity without making it pretentious…for people to join with an expectation that we are always going to have something that they weren’t expecting.”
Naturally, this means that The Curtain is keeping a lid on certain elements of the design and programming so that guests can experience them for the first time in person, not through a press release. For members in particular, the branding is shrouded in mystery – all that Achenbaum would reveal is that “the members’ club is almost like walking through a secret entrance that has another business as its front, reminiscent of La Bodega Negra [Soho’s notorious restaurant that masquerades as a sex shop on the exterior]”.
“If we really want to give the best experience to people, we want them to be around people that are of different backgrounds, cultures, careers and personalities. That’s how you build that whole verticality of what’s out there in the neighbourhood.”
Branding aside, though, “it’s the ability to interact with really interesting people, i.e. our membership, that will change the perspective of hotel guests.” Achenbaum is very aware of the comparisons being made with existing members’ clubs in the area, particularly Shoreditch House, but is keen to stress that The Curtain has a different interpretation of creativity that will inform how it selects its members. “There’s room for us all,” he says. “If we really want to give the best experience to people, we want them to be around people that are of different backgrounds, cultures, careers and personalities. That’s how you build that whole verticality of what’s out there in the neighbourhood.”
Unlike other clubs that may conform to a narrower definition of creativity, for Achenbaum “You could take a banker who is on the board of the Museum of London. That person’s a creative, because they are participating in things that are artistic, creative and forward thinking. That’s what we believe creativity is: being a leader in your field.” For this reason, he has no problem with people talking shop, because “people want to do business with their friends”.
Consolidating The Curtain’s initial membership will follow this model of organic, friendly growth. Hosting a dinner for like-minded people, a mix of long-time collaborators and relative strangers, Achenbaum was delighted to discover an attitude of “really caring about the culture and experience. That mentality is the kind of person I want bringing other people to the club…for me, the most important question to ask people is ‘what inspires you?’”
This dedication to fostering inspiration and collectively sharing and taking care of the experience underlies The Curtain’s vision for its members. Consequently, celebrity isn’t something they will be actively chasing. “Fame is a very transient thing and doesn’t necessarily mean that person is culturally the right fit. Moreover, it’s almost irrelevant whether they’re famous or not because it would be inappropriate to utilise it: what you do within the confines of our membership club is meant to be private.”
“For me, the most important question to ask people is ‘what inspires you?’”
Nevertheless, the celebrity question opens up an interesting debate about the nature of ‘new Shoreditch’. In an area where anti-gentrification protests took to the streets against a fairly innocuous café selling expensive cereal, for some the arrival of a starry members’ club with an imposing price point of entry is both a cause for celebration and concern. When I ask Achenbaum about this tension, he firmly replies “I don’t think it’s my job to debate gentrification. The reality is it’s inevitable. To be upset that someone opens a store where the price point is $2,000 for a t-shirt: then don’t shop in that store. It’s not my job to debate the appropriateness of products coming in.”
“What is my job is to provide a service to the locals that are established here; to be on good terms with the people that are part of the culture that exists today; and to provide a service for our clients that are incoming. I do believe that there is a client that wants to come into this neighbourhood that really has an expectation of a better room product, better level of service, better food product, and just a better version of what some others are already doing.”
“I don’t think it’s my job to debate gentrification… What is my job is to provide a service to the locals that are established here; to be on good terms with the people that are part of the culture that exists today; and to provide a service for our clients that are incoming.”
If that sounds a little ruthless, Achenbaum is keen to emphasise that he wants to “push the limits a little bit, but not push so much that it’s not appropriate for the neighbourhood. We’re super-friendly and we’re super-supportive, and there are definitely businesses in the neighbourhood that we’re going to bring in-house”.
These collaborations will no doubt have a big part to play in keeping The Curtain’s programming fresh and relevant. Returning to the idea of investing in the experience of public space, Achenbaum has brought on a team of inspirational, industry-leading names to help realise his vision; “not just great brands, but great people who have a great product and will add to the experience”. Star trainer and founder of The Vault Gym, Jon Squirrel, will ensure the fitness element of the property is truly aspirational, with cult spinning studio BOOM Cycle also bringing their brand of high-octane classes to the property.
“In today’s world, being forced to stop and think is not the norm for most people.”
Alongside The Curtain’s creative team, rock-and-roll photographer Mick Rock is involved in the art programming, an eclectic mix of found pieces and original works by artists such as Banksy. On featuring the latter, Achenbaum comments, “Banksy represents the history of the area: we’re not trying to make a statement about whether or not street art is current. More importantly, though, it’s thought provoking, and in today’s world, being forced to stop and think is not the norm for most people. We’re non-politically affiliated, but having that opportunity to keep influencing a little bit, which Banksy definitely does: it’s a wonderful message”.
When I push him to reveal which element he is most excited about, however, he confesses “I think having a three-star chef come to London with us is such a feather in the cap of the entire project”. Indeed, the arrival of Red Rooster, Michelin-starred chef Marcus Samuelsson’s transplant of his successful Harlem restaurant in New York and his first launch in the UK, looks likely to be one of the biggest draws for hotel guests, members and the public alike.
Samuelsson’s background, a mixture of Swedish and Ethiopian culture, is a seamless reflection of the patchwork of influences that have long defined Shoreditch’s entrepreneurial spirit. Having known Samuelsson for 17 years, Achenbaum felt like the cultural and artistic relationship between Harlem and Shoreditch meant that this was the right moment to collaborate. “Working with Marcus, he says ‘I want Africa, I want Northern European, I want Swedish, I want Harlem, I want London and specifically, I want Shoreditch!’ So it’s going to be a really interesting mix of pulling together the best of his soul food versions in combination with the influences of London and Northern Europe.” In addition to Samuelsson fusing these influences in his culinary experimentations, the addition of a tequila bar and a 2am closing time mean that Red Rooster is likely to become the hot ticket for late night rendezvous (and a much more attractive option than a kebab).
“You use the word ‘lifestyle’, you use the word ‘boutique’: and what do they mean, at this point? They don’t mean anything. It’s just about experience.”
For someone whose vision has been so pivotal in the design, programming and mindset of The Curtain, Achenbaum is reluctant to lay claim to the term ‘rebel’. “I don’t think that I’m trying necessarily to be rebellious or be different to be different. I think those who think they’re geniuses tend not to be geniuses – it’s the collaborative effort of our team that makes things work.” Similarly, he doesn’t believe that making waves in hospitality is a matter of coining buzzwords, but instead of creating a path for people to live in the moment.
“You use the word ‘lifestyle’, you use the word ‘boutique’: and what do they mean, at this point? They don’t mean anything. It’s just about experience. You have to be able to bring yourself back to the moment, to enjoy that experience, not sit looking at your phone and swiping: that’s not living life. A hard-learned lesson for someone who does what I do, because I always feel like I have 50 different plates up in the air…!” And with that, I leave this consummate plate-spinner to continue blurring the lines of what a hotel can be.