One year from now it will be nothing but bricks and dust. Known by members as The Doll House, one of east London’s hidden gems, a Victorian themed three-storey house whose rough chalk-painted walls are decorated with black illustrative marker-pen drawings, sets the scene of secret cocktail parties, masquerade balls and pop-up dinners, was always facing the end.
“We will play Wrecking Ball full blast when they knock the place down”, owner Adam Towner grins as he takes a sip of his old-fashion drink, the house speciality, suitably served in a grandpa-styled crystal glass.
“We always knew where it was headed. So it’s not a tragedy. We came in because it was going to be knocked down. Otherwise we would never be able to afford a place like this.”
To most people, Hoxton Square 35 is nothing but a plain-looking Thatcher-build house, squeezed in between taller office buildings. In an area bursting with life, it is easily overlooked. But behind the black door, Adam and his wife – and business partner – Katy Gray Rosewarme have created a secret world where time stops, almost as if Alice had once again fallen down the rabbit’s hole.
“It is a very unusual space. We have a no-bullshit attitude. We don’t rip people off. When they come in we tell them what we think is best for them. It is personal. It is just myself and Katy.”
The couple, who are both in their early thirties, and their staff of 20 people run the 6,000 square foot Doll House, including a penthouse flat and roof terrace, as a venue for pop-up events, allowing up-and-coming chefs to give large-scale catering a stab for a time-limited period. As Adam explains, it is a win-win, situation: “We run this space, effectively as a bar, but unlike other people running a full-time kitchen, we invite chefs every week to run our kitchen, we don’t charge them.”
“I think it works nicely on everyone. We serve the drinks. They bring us good food, credibility – we always make sure they are good cooks – and it gives our members new experiences. Nothing is ever the same.”
The couple took over the place last June in the midst of their wedding celebration. Their real estate agent, who the couple have on constant look-out for soon-to-be demolished buildings, had found a place too good to miss: “This place came around on the week of our wedding and on the Friday before, we signed the contract, scraping the money together for the down-payment, so instead of going away on our honey-moon, we started working on this place.”
Looking around the space, which took the newly-weds three weeks to renovate and get ready for business, he laughs: “I slept here for the first week of our marriage because squatters came in and tried to take over the place. It was in an awful state. Windows covered. No lights or anything.”
Today the space is bright, walls painted white and decorated with Katy’s graphic baroque art works, all done by hand. The fireplace is lit and there are flower bouquets from aspiring members set on the lace-patterned glass tables. It’s a friendly space. If you are a friend.
“We wanted to keep it a bit exclusive because of our location,” says Katy as she explains the membership model that the Doll House adopted when moving to Hoxton Square, effectively encouraging aspiring members to donate a porcelain dog, do a hundred re-tweets or give a bottle of spirits or a bouquet of flowers, to become a member.
“The gift thing is not like ‘buy us something’. The dogs we put on the shelves, the flowers go on the tables, and with the spirit we always make them a drink from the bottle they brought. So it’s a bit like, a gift if you’re invited for a dinner party. My mother always taught me to do that.”
Katy, who is an illustrator and artist with years of experience from the fashion industry, is the sole person in charge of the décor and image of The Doll House, while Adam deals with the operations and daily planning. Working closely together, they have an idea of what it takes to be business partners – and partners in life.
“We like working together. Sometimes. Luckily, we do different things. So we don’t tread on each others toes too much, but we do have our moments”, Adam diplomatically states as he looks to his wife and continues, “We would recommend other married couples working together, right?”. Kate pulls a face and shrugs her shoulders, “Weeell, for most part. I think it is a good test of any relationship. If you can survive working together, you can probably survive anything.”
Downstairs the noise from the private cocktail party in the members’ bar is getting louder. The staff on duty are serving drinks the old fashion way – strong and with a smile – because as Adam explains the customers are the “bread and butter” of the Doll House, regardless of pocket size.
“We have all sorts of members. Very rich people, very poor people, all side by side in the bar – because they all have the right attitude – and that is what makes for an interesting environment.”
“We don’t give any special treatments. We have a lot of celebrities and hedge fund managers coming in, to be anonymous, no money involved, to just have a good time.”
Today The Doll House has around 4,000 members, some regulars in the bar, others only visiting for special events such as Sunday Roast pop-ups, Christmas dinners (which is the most important line of events for the Doll House) and private events. Seating between 50-70 people at a time, the menu will almost always be a set four-course, guaranteed to change as new chefs come in, but always done as a family-styled dinner, where everyone gets served at the same time.
The concept will continue when the Doll House finds a new home in 2015, which was always the plan. “We do sometimes dread having to start over, but I don’t think you should ever get too attached to a space. And also, moving on helps keep things fresh and exciting” Katy concludes, as Adam finishes the last of the old-fashion and moves upstairs to inspect the latest add-on to the venue; a drop-in British style tapas bar overlooking Hoxton Square, set to open in late February this year, marking the year to the end.