Beyond just a space to seal business deals, beyond being rhapsodised by the intergalactic-meets-steampunk interior design, Marc Nicholson wants members of 1880 to go at it with each other.
“I want people to fight,” admits the founder and co-owner of the private members’ club at Robertson Quay, Singapore. “Everybody is trying to build a community. And everybody hosts events because they have access to interesting people. But we take a slightly different bent on things here. While others try to create consensus, I’m trying to create discourse. I’m trying to create disagreements.”
Not one to dodge dialogue or drama himself, it is clear that Marc Nicholson founded 1880 on the basis of his unconventional upbringing. The artistic communal concept is exactly what you’d expect to come from a well-travelled child actor and producer. But besides working the stage, writing scripts and going on tours with the kid-centric Canadian theatre company called Creations at only 14 years old, Marc was even a suicide hotline operator for Suicide Action Montreal after barely turning the legal age of 16. He learnt how to ask hard, direct questions.
Yet, the biggest influence for the Montrealer during those formative years wasn’t just about asking the right questions — it was learning how to answer them too. Since 1982, the Nicholson home has turned into a salon of discussion every Wednesday night, with regular and rotating attendees — ranging from economists and professors to politicians and diplomats.
It started as just a gathering of friends but then grew by word of mouth. There were even times when there was a specific topic where the Nicholsons wanted someone to join in, who could represent a part of an argument. Marc Nicholson explains, “I remember one night, there was a discussion about the rights of a fetus, covering the ethics of abortion, and so we invited a Catholic priest, a rape victim, a prostitute, someone who ran an organisation protecting street workers, and a professor of medicine. When you do that, you make sure that you’re covering all the bases and there isn’t cognitive bias. This makes sure that you poke and prod and get people thinking and pondering.”
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These sessions recently ran past 1,900 consecutive Wednesday nights. “It’s still held at my parents’ house. The 1,880th salon discussion happened in March, very close to my father’s birthday,” Marc serendipitously states. “But then, my father passed away three weeks later.” Nicholson Senior was a brilliant computer scientist, says Marc.
Today, the 1880 members’ club, which name actually derives from the decade Robertson Quay was founded, honours the Nicholsons family tradition, but in a Timothy Oulton-designed 22,000 sq ft sprawling space located across the Atlantic. “One of the greatest things about my parents’ gathering was that it showed me what building a community was like. There is a core group of people who are always there. And I don’t have to worry about my mother being a widow now because she’s surrounded by wonderful people. She’s got great friends, and they’re always looking after her. And so community is a great thing. But the word ‘community’ is starting to bug me, because it’s overused now.”
The serial entrepreneur wants to take things one step further. “I think that what we do at 1880, particularly with the salons and talks, is about pushing ideas around.” And Marc Nicholson calls this exchange: “Idea sex”.
“People might feel uncomfortable but you see, humans evolve because they have sex and they exchange bodily fluids and then a baby comes out. Humans then invented language where they can exchange ideas to cooperate in inventing solutions — take for example the invention of fire: I’m sure a caveman communicated to another, saying he was bloody cold, and so they created fire.
“Conversation is how we’re forming our future value systems. This is why I call it ‘idea sex’ because this is how we evolve. It is how our mythology evolve, how our values evolve, how our laws evolve, and so forth. So when my parents conducted Wednesday Nights and if you said: ‘There’s no byproduct or who cares, it’s just a bunch of ivory tower people sitting around agreeing with each other,’ it wasn’t — they were disagreeing with each other.”
Marc believes that we’re living in a time in history with a massive inflection point. What happens in this period can affect the next and thus, human discourse needs to happen. But is it okay to say he’s not trying to build a community, but instead, trying to build communication? He answers, “Well, if you’re getting into the definitions of things. I just want people to be proud of being a member here. I want them to associate themselves with an idea, not the space.
“So to me, 1880 is like a concept. It has a physical space, but it’s more like a mindset and if we were very successful, people would say I’m part of 1880, it’s saying I’m part of an intellectual curiosity. And I’m part of a mindset that is embracing empathy. That’s a cool thing to be associated with.”
As for the topic that tugs most at Marc’s heartstrings? It’s about children, parenting and giving kids a voice. The father of two is known to volunteer his 15-year-old daughter to give her opinions at some of the talks held at 1880, including one on digital dating and another on social media — whether or not it makes kids stupid.
It is easy to tell that the soon-to-be quinquagenarian has remained a young spirit. Though he’s had massive challenges, once even filing for bankruptcy, the self-proclaimed hustler still have big dreams. Though this is it. “This is the last business I ever want to do in my life,” says Marc Nicholson. “I really love what we’re building here and I think it can go on forever. It’s a model that has so many different directions. Right now, our focus is on international expansion. And I think within the next three months, we will have signed a lease on our next location.”
Some of the cities Marc hinted when asked where this new outpost will be are Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Manila. “You know, this is very much in-line with what we want to do for female empowerment. I’ve said it before, I’m building golf courses for women.
“Men have it easy. A guy moves to Asia, walks into a golf course and makes instant buddies and business partners. Where do the women go? I do think that we are battling against a mindset and certain structures that exist that prevent women from achieving true professional equality. But when you walk into 1880, gender is irrelevant as far as I’m concerned.”
We ask Marc Nicholson what are the three rules he live by and here’s what he said:
1. I hate this question
“You said one of the words that I don’t like. I’m not big with rules. I read articles where people say cool things and I try it out… but I only follow through for a week at most.”
2. A sense of wonder
“But yes, I think the world is wonderful — as corny as that sounds but it’s true. I lived all over the place and I’ve never gone somewhere to get away from somewhere. I go somewhere so I can get to somewhere, see something, be a part of something.”
3. Be nice to each other
“We have to remind each other: Life is stressful, be nice to one another. It’s not that complicated.”