Interview: Alan Linn and Steve Ruggi, owners of exclusive New York club Norwood

WALKING into Norwood, New York's newest private members' club, feels like stepping on to a film set. Scattered around the lounge on mismatched sofas and comfortable armchairs are Brooklyn hipsters in jeans and T-shirts, black-clad fashion designers and filmmakers sipping cocktails.

Upstairs, an artist and his team are busy filling a room with thousands of plastic balls, for an installation piece.

In another room, a classical pianist is rehearsing for a concert. The artist formerly known as Prince drops in from time to time to tickle the ivories, and Echo & the Bunnymen recently did a DJ set here.

New Yorkers are famously fickle, but Scots Alan Linn and his business partner Steve Ruggi have them clamouring to gain admittance to this exclusive club, set in an elegant six-storey townhouse in the West Village.

Visitors include Chris Noth, Emily Blunt, Mick Jagger, and Nathalie Rykiel, while Vogue magazine and Merchant Ivory have both used it for shoots. And the owners have been inundated with requests from other would-be members, keen to get into the coolest club in town.

"Gerard Butler and some of his friends were in the other day, and we got chatting and realised we were both from the same part of Paisley," says Linn, sitting back in an armchair in the lounge of the West 14th Street club. He is dressed in jeans, brown lace-ups, a white shirt and striped braces, and sports a neatly trimmed beard.

Pouring himself a cup of tea, he continues, "It was very important to me to have a house. A house makes people relax. We want everyone to feel welcome. When there are famous people in the club everyone ignores them, no-one stares."

A popular visitor to the club is Angus, Linn's black cockapoo, a cocker spaniel-poodle mix, who makes himself right at home in his exclusive surroundings. An author has just dropped in with a copy of her new novel to place on top of the fireplace, alongside books by other members. Linn stops to chat to her.

"Every day I spend a couple of hours walking around and talking to members. It's important that the atmosphere is friendly and we aren't some anonymous club," says the gregarious Scot.

Linn is the public face of the club, while Ruggi, a Fifer, is the financial brains behind the business. Together they have succeeded in creating something that many people, including some of their closest friends, warned would never work. The club is for creative people – actors, film and TV directors, artists, designers, editors, singers, musicians, writers, restaurateurs and gallery curators. "I love the idea that this is a house for the arts," says Linn.

The membership list include Oscar-winners and an age range of 21 to 98. The focus on the creative industries and the wide age range of members distinguishes Norwood from other private clubs such as Soho House, which opened a Manhattan outpost in 2003. So too does its setting, in a Greek-revival townhouse built in 1845 for developer and stockbroker Andrew Norwood.

Set back from the street and up a short flight of steps, it has a cast-iron balcony, setting off lounge windows that stretch from the floor almost as high as the 15ft ceilings. Each level has a different look and atmosphere – from the grand, private dining room on the lower level, complete with a long table and antique artworks, to the funky bar and club room, with its blood-red walls and velvet banquettes, and the garden, lit by paper lanterns hanging from the trees.

The elegant red-brick building has been given a contemporary feel by British designer Simon Costin, whose clients include Herms, Lanvin, Alice Temperley, Stella McCartney and Gareth Pugh. Linn, an art school graduate, had a lot of input. "Detail was very important to us, from the soap and the scent we commissioned to the silverware. We wanted to make it home as much as possible," he says.

When it came to kitting the place out, the two Scots scored some thrifty deals, getting free carpets from a top city store in return for free memberships and a discount on the lift.

The interior is filled with artworks, huge mirrors, original fireplaces and period features – such as the stained-glass rose window above the winding staircase, and the solid silver handles on the mahogany doors. Every weekend, Linn scours flea markets in search of new pieces for the club.

His finds include a bronze toucan head and an old picture of the Washington statue in Paris. "We laid the club out in such a way that it encourages people to mingle and talk to each other. We want our members to interact and collaborate. It's about people just getting started meeting the establishment," says Linn in his booming Paisley accent.

Every month, the Norwood Club selects members at random for a dinner where they can get to know each other and suggest ideas for future events, which recently included a drag bingo night.

Linn left Paisley as a teenager and went to Dundee to study illustration at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design before going to the Royal College of Art, in London, studying alongside Alice Temperley and David Mach.

Remembering his student days in Scotland, he says, "Ten of us would take a house in Edinburgh over the summer and we would all get jobs. I'd go to the Edinburgh Festival. The first time I ever ate lobster was in the Caf Royal. I always go in for a pint whenever I'm back."

After college, he got a bar job and was soon working in some of London's most exclusive private clubs. As well as a stint at the Groucho Club, he spent 12 years running the famously wild and bohemian Black's (members have included Joe Strummer, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Kate Winslet). Ruggi, who is married to a New Yorker, was a founding member of Black's and had a successful career as a filmmaker before going into finance.

"Scotland is such a beautiful country," says Linn, who recently fell in love with his birth country all over again after bringing his partner here for the first time.

"Walking up Leith Walk and turning on to Princes Street and getting that first view of the Castle, it's stunning. Edinburgh is beautiful, with all its Georgian buildings. But Glasgow, Glasgow's special, you have to look up to really appreciate it. There's incredible architecture and industrial heritage. I've only recently started exploring beyond the cities. We went to Mull and Iona. The scenery is breathtaking."

Linn asks the barman to mix up his favourite house cocktail, the Jimmy, made with gin, syrup and cucumber. "The name comes from the Scots 'See you Jimmy' and there's a Jimi Hendrix reference because it's made with Hendrick's gin," he says, grinning.

Though there's not a hint of tartan in sight, you might hear the odd burst of the Cocteau Twins or Paolo Nutini playing over the sound system.

"It takes a huge naivety to sell your house in Hackney and come over here to try to make your own American dream," says Linn. "We came over, two Scots, we'd call ourselves 'the new Carnegies' (after Scots industrialist Andrew Carnegie].

The building is listed so we'd go along to meetings with the Landmarks Preservation Commission and try to dazzle them with all our plans. They'd say, 'We just love your accents.'"

Linn and Ruggi inititally played down their heritage, eager not to put off potential members and investors.

"New Yorkers are very sophisticated and discerning. It was important not to come here and say, 'We are British and we are sophisticated and we'll show you how it's done.' We wanted to start quietly and build from there. We have lots of plans for other things. We want to plan more arts events and support arts projects too."

The atmosphere in the club changes as the day unfolds. and according to which members are in. At night, DJs play, creating a clubby feel that lasts into the small hours, closing at 2am.

Norwood has hosted fashion shows, book launches, beer tastings, film screenings and live bands. Linn invites art collectors to curate exhibitions to fill the walls, purposely juxtaposing pieces by established names with works by new talents.

Though comparisons with Soho House are inevitable – it is just around the corner – Linn insists they are entirely different beasts. New York style-watchers describe Norwood as a more intimate, homely, less corporate club. And while Soho House has bedrooms for members to stay in overnight and a swimming pool on the roof, Norwood concentrates on what it is good at: food, drink, the arts and socialising.

Presiding over the kitchen and a menu of American and European classics is Andrew D'Ambrosi, who previously worked at respected New York restaurant Le Cirque.

Members of Norwood have reciprocal membership of the Ivy and the Groucho Club in London and the Spoke Club in Toronto. "London has lots of private members clubs but New Yorkers are just starting to see the benefits of them," says Linn.

Potential Norwood members must work in the arts and are rigorously screened before being admitted into the 2,000 (1,300) a year club. Regardless of whether they are famous, they must fill out a questionnaire.

Linn got his psychiatrist partner, Dr Lonny J Behar, to design the questions – one very famous Hollywood actor cited learning to grow tomatoes as his greatest achievement. "It's not about celebrity or wealth or being in.

It's about talent and having a balance of talents, skills, backgrounds and ages. We want people who are curious about life and culture, the world around them and other people."

This certainly applies to Linn and Ruggi. Luckily, given that he regularly clocks up 12-hour days, Linn clearly loves his work. His one day off is Sunday, when he can usually be found at home in his kitchen, listening to The Archers and cooking for friends.

So what's next? "There has been talk of a hotel or a club with rooms. People keep asking us to open a club in LA. One thing we're talking about is opening a place in upstate New York. I like the idea of having somewhere our members could go in the country. There would be cabins in the woods, a pool, they could hang out and eat great food and enjoy being in the quiet.

"The world has become so homogenised. We don't want to open identical Norwood clubs all over the world. We'd like to do something new next time."


&#149 This article was first published in The Scotland On Sunday, April 25, 2010