State Of Design: Melbourne impresses beyond aesthetics

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Melbourne may have its unofficial debates with all the other Australian capitals over which is better in the delivery of fashion, food, fine art and so forth, but one field it supersedes the others in is design at large. The city itself boasts some of the most beautiful heritage buildings that stand tall, but far from pretentiously, alongside newer edifices of the sturdiest fabric and boldest of hues. Even crossing the bridge in a cab from Tullamarine airport, visitors are greeted by bursts of unabashed colour with primary hues of cyan, magenta and yellow brightening up the grey between bitumen and sky.

It’s no surprise, then, that Melbourne plays host to one of the most extensive design festivals in Australia. Where most capital festivals that celebrate aesthetic invention might focus on one aspect or another, the Melbourne State Of Design Festival acknowledges the gamut of attractive and pragmatic design: from its countless cosy, bohemian cafés and kaleidoscopic street art to the grandest examples art deco architecture and magnificent wares housed in internationally renowned museums. From fashion to film, art to architecture, club culture to cuisine, it seems everything in Melbourne appears to have a strong focus on design. And when these disciplines come together, the lines of strict design are beautifully blurred, making way for an awesome criss-crossing of cultures. And it is this ubiquitous multicultural beauty that we love most about Melbourne.

Fittingly, Melbourne Central (above, left) posed as the official hub for this year’s State Of Design Festival, where beneath the juxtaposing elements of design that make up Coops Shot Tower – its red brick tower built in 1888 still standing strong under a modern iron and glass dome – visitors could explore pop-up shops, view in-store installations, photographic exhibitions, and generally mingle to discuss all that is design-related. Each year, the festival hosts an Open House where members of the public is invited to investigate more closely architectural and engineering wonders, both historic and contemporary. A particular highlight this year was a tour of the glorious art deco Manchester Unity (MU) building on the intersection of Collins and Swanston Streets which once stood as the tallest building in Melbourne when its pinnacles were complete in 1932 (pictured above, right).

The MU building was an important addition to Melbourne’s skyline in that it represented a new faith in commerce and progress during the city’s inter-war years. It was the first building in Melbourne to boast escalators and other innovations such as automatic cooling and diesel generation for its lifts. But what people appreciate most about it is its attention to detail in design. Australian marbles are used extensively on the interior walls throughout the building, while terracotta faience tiles decorate the floors. Original light fittings have remained in place where possible, or exact replicas added to increase visibility now that the majority of residencies in the building are dentist surgeries. Put it this way, it’s worth making an appointment to get your gums checked just to check out the stunning design of this place.

Modern Melbourne architects and designers have an uncanny way of melding the classic with the contemporary, with examples of the best of both worlds evident in the city’s many boutique hotels. One intelligent hospitality group, Art Series Hotels, has gone one step further to incorporate the works of famous Australian artists into its décor themes. The Cullen Hotel (lobby pictured above) is a dramatic black block of a building situated on Commercial Road in Prahran, with smaller blocks of green light poking out of its front wall. Splashes of original artwork and prints by contemporary Australian artist, Adam Cullen, fills its walls from the ground floor up. Similarly, but drawing on more of a classic artist, The Olsen adopts the artworks of its namesake,  surrealist John Olsen, to add effervescence to its interiors (see review that follows this article).

Melbourne has a knack of making the old look cool enough to be juxtaposed with the new. A guy can walk into cool gentlemen’s outfitters Captains Of Industry in Somerset Place, for example, thinking he’s going in for a simple haircut, but walk out having had a shave, a shoeshine, a haircut and style (all while seated in ye olde-style barber chair), three soy lattes, and a new suit made to measure. This one-stop shop (or shoppe, more like) combines three businesses – barber, tailor and shoemaker – on one studio floor, with a café setup on the far end that bustles at lunch time. It’s like being part of a special men’s club but with the occasional hoodie paired with quality lace-up derbys.

Another venue that flirts with ye olde but keeps its food and coffee fresh and contemporary is the Manchester Press café on Rankins Lane (what is it with Manchester and Melbourne connection? There’s even a bar called Manchuria). In décor, recycling is key at Manchester Press with industrial equipment upcycled into furniture: a glass top laid over an old radiator to make a table; old medicine bottles taking on a new lease as vases. Illustrated fine artworks are pinned to distressed walls, while old school chairs are dotted around small tables, but the real star is the coffee itself, each perfectly brewed cup of ’cino lovingly decorated by your ardent barista.

If clubbing and pub-crawling is more your thing, Mel Tours offers visitors to Melbourne a broader experience of nightlife. Guests meet guide Jerome Miller out front of a designated landmark and are then taken on a tour of the most interesting of lizard lounges and hole-in-the-wall bars. A venue that impressed us very much was – achtung! – The Berlin Bar in Corrs Lane, which flirts with everything World War related from its bunker-style seating in the backroom, to sinister red neon lighting and a cocktail list that’ll blow you away. How’s this for an innovative bevvy: French brandy infused with roast duck fat, plum, dandelion root, wattle seed and celery. If that mix of ingredients boggles your mind, wait till you see the effects it has on your eyes, nose and throat. Bringing the glass to your lips, first you’ll a sense a slight sting in your eye, then the fumes will rush up your nose making you think you’re going to gag, then comes the initial course rush down your oesophagus. Several coughs later, and once the fumes start settling, you really start to enjoy what might be the most innovative drink this scribe has tried.

Other striking drinks on the Berlin Bar menu include The Great Dictator No. 2 (blended Scotch Whisky with Italian Amaro, passionfruit, saffron and citrus juice) and the Socialist No. 2 (dry gin stirred with yuzu, ume, white peach, basil and homemade ginger beer). Goodness knows what these cocktails’ predecessors contained that made them popular enough to be granted a sophomore version each!

To get back to the comment at the beginning of this article about Australian cities in debate over which is better at delivering what, we can confidently say that Melbourne has a strong chance at coming out on top in the culinary stakes. One eatery I’d been hearing a lot about of late is Hare & Grace. When I first read the restaurant’s name I thought it was ‘hare’ as in Krishna (since I figured it juxtaposed nicely with the ‘grace’ part. Rather, when you walk into this expansive dining space, you’re greeted by a mural of a giant white hare looking like it had hopped straight out of the pages of ‘Alice In Wonderland’. Open since November 2010 on a site that was once a bluestone butter factory, there’s a cosy old-world charm to this place. Not that it’s packed with bric-a-brac but instead features great big butcher-type illustrations of cattle and pigs with each edible part of the animal indicated. It’s an interesting aesthetic tactic in that you would think diners wouldn’t want to see pictures of the animals they’re about to eat right in front of them, but it’s done tastefully and minimally so as not to offend. Joost Bakker was the cunning artist and designer behind the idea.

Each dish is a work of art in itself, appearing on your table like mini Miro paintings. For something simple on the starter of ‘composite’ menu, you could try a Yabbie ‘Sandwich’ with crustacean mayonnaise, tomato, cucumber and broad beans ($22) or for something fancier and innovative, Smoked Quail with sage, blueberries and milk thistle ($22). Mains are rich in texture but not as intense in taste as their ingredients might suggest: the Pork Belly with beetroot and coffee essence ($37) and Braised Beef tongue with celery, caper cream and sour apple ($38) both satisfying the savoury enthusiast’s palette. Now we that if ordering oysters, they should be enjoyed at the start of  meal but the ‘Eton Mess’ is best eaten after your mains since it consists of oysters topped with horseradish, and doused in a passionfruit sauce, topped with a beetroot meringue, the latter two ingredients lending it an almost dessert quality. Hare & Grace is one place you should mark in your Melbourne things-to-do diary. It takes experimental, molecular dining to an altogether new level.

Melburnians seem to enjoy the shared dining experience – literally – with popular tapas restaurants often having queues of people waiting for a seat. The Hairy Canary is an old-school favourite and Movida has almost become synonymous with Melbourne dining. For something different, we tried Aňada, a tapas restaurant and bar in Fitzroy that offers a tasting menu from $55 per person, offering such tantalising delights as salt cod and garlic croquettes, pork belly with smoked aubergine, and gem and barberry salad with Andalusian balsamic.

The restaurant is the brainchild of Jesse and Vanessa Gerner who fell in love with Moorish cuisine during travels through Europe and North Africa and from their experience working at Moro and The River Café in London. They’ve added Muslim Mediterranean touches to simple peasant food from Andalusia in the south of Spain and – voila – created an innovative dining experience.

If share plates aren’t your thing, a tapas menu doubles up as an exotic list of entrées, with highlights including Charcoal grilled quail with freekeh and pomegranate ($6.50 a serve) and queso manchego with membrillo (hard Spanish sheep’s milk cheese with quince paste, $3.50 each). The more adventurous of mains include grilled sardines wrapped in vine leaves with pistachio orange blossom sauce ($17), and crispy goat on hummus with barberries, pine nuts and flatbread ($20). Add a bottle of Portuguese wine, and it all makes for a marvellously memorable meal.

Now we won’t go into detail about Melbourne’s fashion design scene. You already know that – thanks to it being the city that gets lumped with more rain than most – dressing stylishly is part of its cultural vernacular. Indeed, as is the case in other fashionista capitals such as Milan and Paris, even when a Melburnian chucks on a black skivvy and jeans, they look like, well, they’ve got the right look. But we will go into a little of its arts. Earlier this year, Cream ran an article on Melbourne’s wonderful street art tours (see here) and street art culture is still flourishing. Walk down the city’s smaller side streets and you’ll discover some amazing kaleidoscopic murals and graffiti detail.

For art the conventional way, no trip to Melbourne is complete without the obligatory visit to the National Gallery of Victoria. One exhibition not to miss is ‘Looking At Looking: The Photographic Gaze’ (image above) which explores how photography constructs particular ways of looking and includes 20 images from one of our favourite local pix men, Bill Henson. The exhibition commences September 30, and best of all, entry is free. On the other end of the NGV spectrum, there’s ‘Game/Play’ (image below), which opens on September 24 and explores the evolution of digital games to date while also presenting insight into the new wave of independent game development.

Forget those advertisements for Melbourne of several years back, that featured a giant ball of wool making its way through the city (and a mess of it in its wake). Of course, Melbourne will always hold onto some of its quaint and historical reputation so as to maintain a certain charm and credibility, but the city at large is doing brilliant things on the contemporary front, too. Its architecture, art, fashion and food are just the tip of the iceberg.


Aňada Bar & Restaurant

197 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy

Phone: (03) 9415 6101



Berlin Bar

16 Corrs Lane
Melbourne VIC 3000
Phone: (03) 9639 3396



Captains Of Industry

Gentlemans Outfitter and Café

Level 1, 2 Somerset Place, Melbourne  



Hare & Grace 

525 Collins Street, Melbourne

Phone: (03) 9629 6755



Manchester Press Cafe

8 Rankins Lane, Melbourne
Phone: (03) 9600 4054



Mel Tours

Phone: 0407 380 969




National Gallery of Victoria

Federation Square, Melbourne

+ NGV International

180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne



The Cullen

164 Commercial Road, Prahran

Phone: (03) 9098 1555



The Olsen

637-641 Chapel Street, South Yarra

Phone: (03) 9040 1222



Photography by Antonino Tati except for The Cullen lobby images; second last image:

Bill Henson, Australian 1955–, Untitled 1980–82 1980–82
from the Untitled 1980/82 series 1980–82, gelatin silver
photograph, 32.6×47.2cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Anonymous gift, 1993 (PH3-1993) © Courtesy of the artist
and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

And final image:

‘Once Upon A Spacetime Costume Design’ by Tim Goschnick 2011, NGV.