REBEL CONCEPTS: COOL IS DEAD, LONG LIVE COOL
A 1930s building in Wood Green has become a very modern, counter-cool conduit for creativity, community and do-it-yourself entrepreneurship. Green Rooms’ Chairman, Kurt Bredenbeck, tells Olivia Squire why social enterprise will disrupt the future of travel.
“HOUSEKEEPING!” calls Kurt Bredenbeck, the Chairman of London’s Green Rooms, as he knocks briskly on a bedroom door before striding inside. He wants to show me the furniture he hand-selected for the interior, you see; and doors are very much symbolic at this friendliest of inner-city hotels
But then, Green Rooms is not your average hotel. In fact, it’s not really even a hotel at all, with an assortment of dorms, shared bathrooms and private rooms nudging it towards the ho(s)tel hybrid that has become popular of late. However, there’s no guarantee that any of these spaces will be accommodating sleepers; we might instead stumble upon a live performance, as the audience for Hotel Europe – a part interactive theatre, part audio installation that took place across five rooms – did back in February. Or perhaps we’ll end up picking up a paintbrush for a life-drawing session, witnessing some experimental stand-up comedy, or taking in a new exhibition.
This is because Green Rooms (named after the artists’ waiting room in a theatre, as well as its location in Wood Green) is the self-proclaimed “first arts hotel in London”, designed as an affordable place of refuge, passage and creation for performers, artists and musicians. With beds ranging from £18 to £85 per night, this is no luxury product; but in its niche crowd curation, strong sense of purpose and fearless attitude, it effortlessly provides the authentic, artistic experience that most ‘lifestyle’ hotels would sacrifice their left wing for.
The collaboration between Bredenbeck, a founder and early-stage investor of One Aldwych and the founder and creator of The Hoxton, and Nick Hartwright, co-founder of social enterprise co-working space The Mill Co. Project, arose when Hartwright approached Bredenbeck with a lease, funding from the Mayor of London and Haringey Council, and the seed of an idea for an art hotel.
“Initially I thought ‘art hotel – what does that mean?’” laughs Bredenbeck, a jovial Anglophile wearing a tweed suit and American accent. “There are all sorts of ‘art hotels’ with billion-dollar collections on the walls, and most of them are a bit fake, with lots of money thrown at them. Then Nick explained it wasn’t an art hotel, but a hotel for artists – and he really meant performing artists.”
Having always had a penchant for a groundbreaking idea – “I do feel a bit rebellious against the hotel industry, because it’s so dominated by huge monopolies and super-billionaires. I like to do something new” – Bredenbeck joined forces with Hartwright and six months and £700,000 later, Green Rooms was born. Rather charmingly, Hartwright invited theatrical groups to use the site as a performance space during construction, resulting in National Theatre students enacting mini-plays around the builders (and breaking the lift) two days before launch. “I thought, ‘there’s no way we can do this’ – but I went with it, because we’re an art hotel, so it’s going to be ingrained right into the dust and plaster”, remembers Bredenbeck.
From the six-month local chef’s residencies in the kitchen through to the British-made and sourced furniture throughout, this mission to provide a space for creative endeavour and enterprise is embedded in Green Rooms’ core. “We’re promoting British craft and design”, Bredenbeck explains. “All of the furniture is British and hand-selected by me, from these vintage chairs, which come from the Ministry of Defence, to that sofa, which was made by a family workshop in West Wycombe. I’m obsessed with having ‘a line of beauty’, a thread through everything.”
This very “anti-Soho House” philosophy of ongoing co-creation is refreshingly anarchic, with several elements still being fitted during my visit and plans for future residents to contribute one of their artworks. Bredenbeck confirms, “I think handmade is the new luxury. This is a very do-it-yourself, handmade hotel.”
However, he’s keen to emphasise that being handmade is no excuse for being slovenly: “Part of being a social enterprise is being an enterprise. It needs to work as a hotel product or guests won’t come back and you won’t make money.” He remains convinced that socially responsible products are what modern consumers want, and that combining good business with doing good will inform the way future industry works.
“It’s part of what is and what will be. I think it’s a generational thing – all men my age were told to go and work for a management consultancy or investment bank; apart from Barack Obama, they didn’t think about working in the community or how you could create a product that people wanted, but also addressed other needs. That’s what social enterprise is – a new way of looking at business.”
For Bredenbeck, this longing for inclusive business is what drove his previous hotel projects, which also refused to worship at the altar of ‘cool’ and exclusive. For both One Aldwych and The Hoxton, “I was acting against the rise of the super cool, super up-your-ass ‘design hotels’ that were so pretentious, a lot of people felt uncomfortable in them. I wanted to occupy a new space in the market that wasn’t necessarily for creative people, but was anti-brand, anti-cool, available to everybody.”
Citing the transformation of post-Hoxton Shoreditch as evidence of cool gone wrong (“Shoreditch is kind of my fault; I started a nightmare – everything looks the same. It’s horrifying!”), he believes that gentrification is only a problem when handled inelegantly. “The big brands just drop in like a spaceship. People don’t really know or care where they are; they’re not participating. When I build a hotel, people are coming to explore.” Rather than focusing on being ‘cool’, he argues, “You want to make something real. The hotel is a ground-up business that’s supporting people, training people, hiring people: that adds to the economy and the community. For the new generation, that’s a very desirable attribute.”
Over in the as yet decidedly un-Shoreditch outpost of Wood Green, Green Rooms encapsulates this anti-cool, pro-inclusive spirit, rising phoenix-like from the dust and plaster. “We have multidimensional ambitions for this little thing”, Bredenbeck muses. “We’re on the cutting edge of town, we’re between a hostel and a hotel, and we’re the first social enterprise start-up in the hotel business.”
For anyone who remains unconvinced that caring is the new ‘cool’, he remarks, “I’m normally moaning about these things five to ten years before everybody else, but I know eventually everybody will be following me! It’s a huge expanding area and it’s non-competitive: there’s always people to help, there are always needs.” Rebels, take note: when it comes to social enterprise, the door is open.