Trendy and intellectual, salons are back in London town

There are drinks by the entrance; people are holding foot-tall glasses of beers; some are eating dinner; and, there’s the constant buzz of chatter and natter all around. Loud music is playing and there are also strobe lights. But no, this is not a party or a casual social night. In fact, chairs are lined-up in rows to face the stage at the front of the venue and people are just waiting for the event to start. 

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Salon London… I hope we got something for everyone tonight.” says the host. It is Salon London’s last event for the year, where you get dancing and drinking breaks in between speakers. The Salon is also celebrating its 6th birthday in this intimate venue at The Proud Archivist in Haggerston, with the bar just by the door. 

This is part of the the new trend emerging across the capital. The need for intellectual spaces where you can think, debate, socialise and drink at the same time. It’s an academic and aristocratic 18th century concept bleeding into the 21st century of pop culture and mainstream society; it’s the new age of modern-day salons.

Salon London describes itself as the provider of the capital’s best cultural monthly showcases about science, arts and psychology. They bring together the interesting and the interested to convene for fresh perspectives and thought-provoking conversations. Matt Morgan of Salon London said: “At the moment, the way that you receive cultural experiences is either going to a physical space such as museums and art galleries. What we do is we bring the cultural experience to the audience in locations such as bars, restaurants and churches, even.” 

Whether it is social issues, literature, science or philosophy, there would be a salon dedicated to discuss such topics, which try to increase the interaction between participants of mainly 20 to 35 year-olds peppered with younger and older faces here and there. First Edition Talks, a series of social debate forums, is the brain-child of Sunday Times columnist Katie Glass; it prides itself to be very open about its guests and audience where “no one really knows what they are doing.” Glass said that she tries to get people who don’t normally come to this kind of thing. “Reality TV stars, 20 year-old drag queens… I’m deliberately getting people who don’t wanna have an academic discussion come and have an academic discussion. Sometimes they know more about a subject than someone who read all the books,” she added. 

Filip Matous who is the head organiser of The London Philosophy Club also recognise the club as a modern-salon format which aims to educate, please and entertain. “I think the appeal of the salon type events is that you can both be social, learn from a curated evening and improve your mind.” He points out that this makes salons very different from the likes of TED Talks and other established conventions and conferences. “TED is great at what it does but there is a very definite separation of audience and stage. Although we often have a presenter, we like to keep as much time as possible for everyone in the room to discuss, debate and challenge assumptions,” said Matous. 

Aside from being different from other platforms, modern salons varies from one another in terms of their own formats. For example, Damian Barr’s Literary Salon also provides “an evening of drinking and thinking”, although it is very specific to celebrating new stories and having emerging and established authors as speakers. Barr explains that what makes his literary salon different is not just its niche but also the fact that it is personally tailored by him. He said: “Salons have always been moulded by the tone of the person who host them. Madame Geoffrin’s salon would have been different from Madame de Pompadour’s salon. Salons have always been a reflection of the salonniere. Everybody have different tastes and my salon is purely a reflection of mine.” 

Salons are the revival of an 18th century tradition, but how are the 21st century salons different? Barr describes present spaces as more democratic. “Salons in the past are very much more of aristocrats. But we invite, everybody. We invite men and women.” Meanwhile, Morgan said that they are delivering it in a different manner. “As soon a you label it as salon, people think that you have to be a certain intellect to attend these salons. It has that connotation to it,” he said. “It’s about hitting the audience and making them understand what we are talking about, which are the experiences that they’ve been through in modern culture in the last 20 or 30 years,” Morgan added.

More and more salons, clubs, and talks with similar formats and aim are popping up in venues such as libraries, cafes and bars; it is evident that there is a thriving market for these kinds of platforms and spaces. It may come as a wonder since this digital era is becoming more saturated with social medias and online forums. 

According to Glass, “there’s an excitement about being able to talk to each other on twitter and online. But the real excitement is actually, then, being able to meet these people in real life. We have this conversation online and we may decide to make it real.”

Indeed there is no harm in having both of the online and offline worlds, but as Barr said: “It’s part of how we spend so much time online that there’s now a thirst to then spend time offline and meet other people like us or maybe not quite so like us. People want to get together and see other people.”

People starts to crave the social context around conversations, they don’t just want to have it as it is but they also want to have the small talks and chat around it. Matous said that salons satisfy an important element of the society by “bringing people together from all walks of life to discuss topics that affect the world.” For this reason there’s always going to be a need for spaces, such a salons, which is so eloquently described by Morgan in this metaphor: “It’s like when you try a dress on. The reason you try a dress on is so you can actually feel it. Even with today’s technology whether you can virtually try a dress on, you’ll never get that same touch and feel of physically trying that dress on. So, there will always be that need.”