The School of Life operates out of a smart shop in London’s Bloomsbury, but this is not the place to buy knick-knacks. Rather, this is where to go if all the knick-knacks fail to gratify. Dissatisfied with your high-end job? Wonder where all the time has gone and why your days don’t make sense? Then perhaps it is time for a lesson at the School of Life, where words like “soul”, “mindfulness” and “fulfilment” circulate with sincerity. You might consider attending the “How Necessary is a Relationship” class, or a “sermon” on “being yourself”. There is always a “Bibliotherapy” session, where a “bibliotherapist” will listen to your literary history and prescribe some titles to fill that book-shaped hole in your life.
In January the School of Life launched a partnership with the Morgans Hotel Group, an international luxury chain. This means that a few hotels will experiment with offering “Aphorism Cards” on turned-down beds, and giant “Semi-Automatic” vending machines will peddle School of Life merchandise. (At the St Martin’s Lane hotel in London, the machine sells soaps shaped like baby-hands, and dinner with philosopher Alain de Botton—the latter for £5,000, including a bottle of wine.) Hotels will host affiliated lectures, and something called a “Minibar for the Mind” (£35) will be available in rooms. Meant to replace the usual dusty nibbles and doll-sized bottles of booze, these in-room minibars contain a box of conversation starters, a book of “Collected Thoughts”, two reading prescriptions, a “Dreams and Fears” notebook and some pencils.
Visually, there is an affinity between the two businesses. Both the School of Life and the Morgans hotels pride themselves on their quirky aesthetic. For the former, this tends to mean vintage typefaces and off-key colours (bitter yellow, sage green); for the latter, such ingenuity takes the shape of unique furnishings, like a three-legged Dali-inspired chair (the texture of melted wax, with high heels for feet) and a truculent row of molar-shaped stools in the lobby of the St Martin’s Lane hotel.
But stylish presentation can’t conceal the whiff of gimmick. At swanky Morgans outposts, the School of Life appears little more than a marketing bauble. I’m told it is “something a bit different for customers” and the school routinely “pursues partnerships with innovative brands”. What is it that has attracted the School of Life? Key draws must be exposure, and, of course, money. If the partnership is a success it will be reproduced throughout the chain—a greater reach than might be achieved from Bloomsbury. Morgwn Rimel, the director of the School of Life, couches this more obliquely—“access to a different audience.”
But in the act of reaching out to grasp such heady treasures the School of Life may have accidentally kicked away their own mounting block. Doesn’t selling dinkily packaged products in a high-end luxury hotel’s vending machine indicate that it has looped so far off-message that it is now a part of the very problem it set out to solve? Perhaps not. The truth is that the School of Life is plainly a high-end brand. The people who attend classes on such topics as "how to find a job you love" are unlikely to be found on the breadline. This kind of introspection is a luxury. It requires punters with the leisure time and the disposable income to have become either bored or disillusioned enough to wander the gnarled alleyway of existentialism. In choosing to ally itself with Morgans, the School of Life has shrewdly gained access to exactly those people most inclined to exchange cash for the promise of fulfilment.
Does this mean that the School of Life has lost its currency? I hope not. At bottom it is a novel idea, and it’s a more sociable way to find a meaningful life than, say, sitting down and reading the acres of books that touch on the subject. Besides, Morgwn Rimel seemed charmingly genuine when she told me that they enjoyed creating the products. They are, as promised “playful and unexpected”.
~ KASSIA ST CLAIR