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The concept of “staging” or “dressing” houses for sale with upmarket art and furniture is nothing new. In 2010, to coincide with London’s Frieze Art Fair, the developers of Number Two Cornwall Terrace filled the 18th-century mansion with work by artists including Picasso, Cézanne, Damien Hirst and Banksy – half of which was for sale, along with the house.
Since then, developers have widened the choice of cultural bait. For the wealthy, buying a property is increasingly about buying into a lifestyle – the elements of which are carefully “curated” by the developers.
Residents of the 1920s Hollywood Tower and new adjacent building La Belle in Los Angeles are treated to private rooftop concerts every couple of weeks as developer Alliance Residential seeks to attract affluent creative types. The gigs are popular and each resident is allowed to invite a guest, making it a lively networking opportunity. Acts have included Florence and the Machine and Mumford & Sons. Rental prices at each property range from $2,080 to $4,680 per month.
In New York, developer Gotham Organization arranges summer rooftop concerts for residents of Atlas New York in Manhattan, while those living in Gotham’s nearby Nicole building get free film screenings. Apartments in each building are available to rent from $3,000 to $7,000 a month.
In London, the developer Capital Properties (Capco) is focusing its attention on Covent Garden, forging ties with the Royal Opera House in the hope of luring cultural-minded buyers. On the corner of Covent Garden’s piazza beside the opera house is The Russell – once a grand Victorian hotel, later turned into offices and now converted by Capco into high-end homes. Its three lateral apartments and two duplex penthouses are aimed at opera-goers and ballet buffs – and those simply aspiring to be such. Prices start at £4.95m, and properties are available through agents EA Shaw and CBRE; so far, one apartment has sold.
“We created something really quite bespoke with the Royal Opera House, which included a silver membership, the ability to use the private royal box, a behind-the-scenes tour and the viewing of a dress rehearsal,” says Sarah-Jane Curtis, director of Capco Covent Garden.
Words such as “bespoke” are key. The kind of buyers Capco is courting may already be Royal Opera donors, and the silver membership included in The Russell deal is, in fact, the cheapest tier offered by the opera house, costing £5,000 a year – small change compared with the Grand Tier Season Patron annual membership at £53,000. But Curtis says: “It’s the association with the Royal Opera House that has come across quite strongly. They are not just buying a flat in the area – they are buying part of the area.”
Covent Garden has been through many transformations. The English architect Inigo Jones designed its Italian-style piazza and “portico houses” on the north and east sides in the 1630s, and it soon became a desirable area for fashionable court society. But by the 1650s, fruit and vegetable stalls had sprung up, forming a market where itinerant shows would play, and the place took on a more bohemian character. Taverns and coffee houses, theatres and brothels set up shop and the aristocracy moved to new developments in Soho and Mayfair.
Covent Garden’s image improved in the 19th century, when some of the coffee houses and taverns were turned into hotels – The Russell being one of them. And in 1974, the market was moved to Nine Elms, south London, with the piazza being developed in subsequent years to include a mix of shops, market stalls and restaurants, mainly aimed at tourists.
“Our strategy has been to reinvent [the area] and work closely with the Opera House so the kind of retail we put in is more aligned with their type of customer,” says Capco’s Curtis.
Purchasing a flat in The Russell is also about buying into a locale that has been carefully stage-managed. Capco’s recent projects include a Jeff Koons bunny that appeared in the piazza’s Market Hall to promote Tate Modern’s Pop Life exhibition, and a display of Clive Boursnell’s photographs of Covent Garden from the late 1960s to the present day. Copies of the exhibition book, Then and Now, will be given to residents of The Russell.
It is well known that money follows art. When the Young British Artists moved into east London’s cheap warehouse spaces in the early 1990s, they bestowed a certain cool on the area. But most artists have since been priced out and the area is now home to well-off young professionals.
London’s South Bank tells a similar story – a once seedy neighbourhood that now attracts some of the city’s most expensive new developments, which trade off the area’s cultural cachet. In Shakespeare’s day, Southwark was known for its inns, playhouses and brothels. Today, developments such as NEO Bankside benefit from their proximity to the Southbank Centre, British Film Institute, National Theatre and Tate Modern. NEO Bankside residents are offered Tate membership and there is an art collection on site. Flats are for sale through Knight Frank priced from £3.5m.
CIT’s South Bank Tower – a development converting the building formerly known as the King’s Reach Tower, due for completion in late 2015 – is tapping into the area’s artistic reputation by commissioning photographic portraits of “local artisans and creative entrepreneurs” to hang in the building. As well as a screening room and library on the roof terrace, residents will be offered an “art concierge” service that offers access to gallery openings and private views.
“We want to provide a service that keeps residents plugged into their local area,” says George Kyriacou, managing director of developments at CIT. Apartments are available through Savills and CBRE and range in price from £625,000 for a studio to £16m for a penthouse.
Designed to flatter potential customers, whether existing art-lovers or not, such services make clear that selling an attractive house in a desirable part of central London no longer quite washes with the wealthy. The worlds of culture, concierge and property have merged and developers would be wise to offer a lifestyle tailored to the kind of buyers they hope to attract.