The Trumpet Building in Rosebank’s new Keyes Art Mile has transformed the street with its modern yet warm architecture. Located next to the CircaGallery, it holds its own both as a piece of art and a space that is home to art. Browse the lifestyle retail stores such as Shelflife and Okapi. Walk up the main stairs into the atrium area that often hosts exhibitions and dinners. And once you have had your fill of the art and luxury, take the lift up to the realm of the new members-only private club, Mesh.
Mesh was founded by CEO Jonathon Meyer, who understands hospitality and crafting unique spaces in ways that few can. He has been, among other roles, sales and operations manager for Mandela Rhodes Place in Cape Town, and an integral person behind the Slow Lounge concept, which changed the face of airport lounges in South Africa. He was then instrumental, as general manager, in taking that thinking out of the airport and into the city, with Slow in the City Lounge.
In founding Mesh, Meyer has partnered with three investors: Anton Taljaard, Derek White, and Wayne Furphy. The latter is a serial investor with interests in several areas, including Southern Cross Campers, Illuminate Lights, and Coti Chocolates. White and Taljaard are both intimately involved in the development of the Keyes Art Mile concept.
Traditionally, members-only clubs have been soaked in exclusivity, exclusion, and, to a certain extent, colonial snobbery. Close your eyes and you are immediately submerged in images of wood, oak, and leather, with elderly gentlemen in three-piece suits sipping whiskey, and smoking cigars or pipes,
while determining what the future of the world will look like.
These clubs were also the domain solely of men. In his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham Maslow, while unpacking what became Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, said the following about The Love Needs: “If both the physiological and safety needs are fairly well gratified, then there will emerge the love and affection and belongness needs…. He (the person) will hunger for affectionate relations with people in general, namely, for a place in his group, and he will strive with great intensity to achieve this goal.”
Since that first time we sat around a fire in a cave, human beings have wanted to belong to something; to be a part of a community, through language, interests, taste, or thought. It is this desire to belong that birthed the concept of the private or gentleman’s club as a place for men of “importance” to come together.
Yet, as with every other facet of life, these spaces have had to evolve or die. “The concept of the private club has morphed over centuries from being an elitist escape for like-minded and well-moneyed folk to gather and discuss
who should marry who, which piece of their estate to sell to a neighbour and, ultimately, when ‘working men’ were finally allowed into these clubs, to do business, says Nigel Pace, who together with interior designer Sarah Ord, is the co-founder of the relatively new The Stack in Cape Town.
“In this day and age, the club is now the opportunity for like-minded and somewhat less-titled folk to gather and discuss the game, the vintage, wheel and deal, and socialise in a convivial space where the food is good. You don’t need to engage in any particular sport or hobby to be allowed in; you don’t even need to wear a tie and socks.”
For the older clubs, the journey has been mixed as they work to stay in tune with the times. The Rand Club in Johannesburg, founded in October 1887 by Cecil John Rhodes, was shut down in 2015, as it struggled to maintain its place in a changing South Africa. It recently re-opened, both as a private club but, more importantly, also as a multipurpose venue that can be hired by the public.
In a way, this is the strategy that The Cape Town Club, which was established in 1976 when the City Club (1878) and the Civil Service Club (1858) merged, has taken over the years. The club has function rooms available both to members and for private hire. From a Vusi Mahlasela performance on Mandela Day, and an illusionist and his magic troupe, to a politician discussing municipal elections, the focus has been on creating new experiences for an increasingly diverse membership. Fortunately, all of these clubs have been opened up to include people of colour, as well as women.
In a country such as Nigeria, which also has a long history of private clubs, many of them established by the colonial administrators and expatriates, clubs have retained most traditional elements, while becoming a bit more inclusive in terms of membership. However, clubs such as Ikoyi Club 1938 are very specific about membership criteria. Members are meant to be “at the top of their profession”, and the club details the minimum requirement across different sectors.
The Metropolitan Club, which is about 57 years old, had Nigeria’s then chief justice Adetokunbo Ademola as its first president, and still positions itself very much as a “gentleman’s club”, with very clear rules around dress code, depending on the purpose of one’s visit to the club. Elsewhere in Africa, Nairobi is home to a new private club, the two-year old Capital Club East Africa. General manager Rupert Elliot says: “Having established a club network in the Middle East, the plan is to establish a network of clubs throughout Africa.”
Signature Clubs has plans to expand into Nigeria in 2017, as well as South Africa and other parts of the continent. Elliot says: “The greatest benefit is our membership and the people you can meet, in addition to the terrific food,
location (in Westlands, Nairobi), infrastructure, and staff. My sense is there will always be a portion of society who desire that special sense of a place being theirs.”
Pace also agrees that a club should have an element of exclusivity, saying: “The Stack Club is entirely aspirational. If you are in, you have arrived; if you aren’t in, you wish you had.”
When it comes to contemporary members-only clubs, the poster child is, without a doubt, Soho House. The first house was opened in Soho, London, in 1995, and the brand has since gone on to establish about 17 houses in, among others, Toronto, New York, Istanbul, Manhattan, Berlin, Malibu, and Miami.
For King Adz, a member who often works from Soho and Shoreditch House, private clubs “offer a safe and exclusive environment. London is quite hectic sometimes. The hustle and bustle can become a bit much. The clubs such as Soho House and the Groucho are busy, yet quiet. No hassle. Lots of famous people go there to do meetings and no one bats an eyelid.”
Membership tends to lean towards media people and creatives, including writers, actors, directors, and the like. The Groucho House draws its members from the arts, publishing, film, music, and advertising industries. It was born in the mid-1980s, when a group of publishers, who were looking for a place to hang out and break bread, approached a restaurateur and bar owner to collaborate.
Another interesting club established in the recent past is NeueHouse, with the first launched in Madison Square, New York in 2013, as both a social and work space for individuals in media, fashion, and design. The second was established in Los Angeles in 2015 to cater to the film industry, as well as design, fashion, publishing, and architecture. NeueHouse is now on the verge of opening its third club in London.
It is against this global backdrop that Mesh Club is being launched in Johannesburg, with a clear plan to expand into Cape Town next, and then the rest of the African continent. In Meyer’s words: “Mesh was mainly started because there isn’t a space for entrepreneurs to meet, work, socialise, and connect on a regular basis. We looked at what was available in Johannesburg and developed the Mesh Club concept accordingly.”
Mesh Club reflects what a members-only club needs to look like in a 21st century, South African context. The Club is launching with 100 founding members, who were handpicked by Meyer and his team to “represent different
walks of life. They are all disruptors in their field. It was important for us to have a cross-section of society.”
These include Kaya FM’s managing director, Greg Maloka; gallery owner Monna wa Mokoena; trends Sarah Ord and Nigel Pace of the Stack analyst and creative thinker Dion Chang; and cultural creative and media commentator Sizakele Marutlulle.
For those interested in becoming members, Meyer outlines the process: “Apply at our reception or online and, following pre-screening by the community manager, you will be invited to attend a drinks evening. A number of founding members will be present and, should you get ‘two thumbs up’, you become a member. There is an annual membership fee.”
Walking through the space, one is struck by how perfectly balanced and cohesive everything is, from the artwork — street artist Skullboy’s murals — the décor and furniture in the bar area and restaurant, through to the hot desks, meeting rooms, and conference facilities. All the work was sourced from
members, including the Naked Ape staff uniforms by Shaldon Kopman.
Mesh is not only a co-working space, or a social space, or a meeting place,
or a place to explore different elements of one’s creativity in the cinema/viewing room, or a space for reflection, or a place with interesting curated products created by local artisans and designers, or a space that serves as a platform for collaboration. It is all of those things and more. It is a space that becomes whatever you want it to be, when you want it to be.
Eben Keun, chief brand architect at Breinstorm Brand Architects, who is moving his offices to Mesh, says: “Our new Joburg office is a dedicated field office, situated within the Mesh Club shared working environment. It means our
team has the opportunity to work within our own studio or outside of it alongside other club members.
“We believe this gives our team the benefit of being part of an environment where different people, from different industries, disciplines, cities, or countries
will be working and interacting. Professional open, co-working or hub work-spaces provide a positive ecosystem for collaboration and serendipitous encounters, which is a very important part of our ethos,” Keun says.
Mesh Club is positioned as a “common ground for uncommon people” and is counting on the inherent need we all have to connect with like-minded individuals in a way that is truthful and authentic in a private space. The
evolution of the members-only club is a work in progress, and it is platforms such as Mesh that will continue to define what they look like.