January 7, 2010

Emerging architect Nick Harding creates a Scandinavian-inspired retail interior, contrasting warm, pale plywood with gloss back finishes.

The Autonomy clothing label has been around for a number of years, but has never had its own retail shop, until now. Fashion designer Nick Demkiw’s brief to architect Nick Harding was to transform what Harding described as a “stark white plasterboard shell” on Melbourne’s Chapel Street in South Yarra and make it feel like it had been there for years.

Harding felt there were two possible approaches – either fill the space with objects or build the actual space itself. “One of the first things I said to them was, ‘It’s going to be very hard to recreate the feeling of ‘old’ in a very new crisp white plasterboard box’,” says Harding, before recommending the second option. The only problem was that the budget was extremely tight.

Harding chose to wrap the ceiling and one wall in the cheapest Australian plywood. “It just seemed obvious to me that timber gave that richness the clients were after,” he says. The architect has long been enamoured with mid-century Scandinavian modernism. “Timber was just a traditional material to use in that era,” he says. The original concept had the timber wrapping around both walls and the ceiling, but this caused problems with clearances from the front door, so one wall was replaced by a simple hanging rail. The concrete floor was sanded back and coated with paint and epoxy sealant.

The remaining plasterboard was painted black, apart from the end wall that conceals the change rooms and the back-of-house area. This wall is lined in vinyl wallpaper that carries a digital image. The initial renders Harding presented to Demkiw showed the space as a kind of timber-wrapped light box, with a black and white photograph at the end. From the opposite side of the street, you see a photo-real image on the back wall, yet the closer you get to it, the more abstract it becomes, until you walk inside the shop where it dematerialises into a field of black and white-toned squares. “I’ve always been fascinated by pixilations,” says Harding. Demkiw’s background is graphic design – he selected the final image and produced the pixilations for printing.

The plywood wrap incorporates shelving and a designated jeans display to launch a new Autonomy jeans range. The central island joinery incorporates the checkout, accessories display and a DJ turntable. Both Demkiw and Harding share a passion for electronic music and DJing. The only element that was allowed any kind of luxurious budget was the lighting – Italian fluorescent tube pendants hang in a cluster at varying heights above the gloss-black central joinery.

The shop was open for some time before the interior was finished. Something needed to be missing for the project to be complete – circular pieces of plywood had to be removed from the wall and ceiling. In the harsh world of low-budget construction, the builder could not be persuaded to cut the holes. It took Harding several months and one aborted attempt before finally persuading someone to come and do it. Without this element, the project would have fallen short for Harding, and he would never have sought to get it published. In the end, to further save money, even some of the holes were left out, so the lines became less like the work of some giant sewing machine and more like an enigmatic message in Braille which, for Harding, improved the design. Demkiw has since incorporated lines of black dots in his graphic identity for the label.

“I’m a big believer in bringing good design to the everyday person,” Harding says. He enjoyed leaving some of the design open to the client’s interpretation and manipulation. Instead of designing the front window display, Harding specified fixing points at the top and bottom, allowing anything to be strung between them. Potentially, the window display system could be changed every week. At present, the display comprises woven black rope and a broomstick, but it could be hanging chains, or any other device strung between floor and ceiling. “Do you design everything for someone so that it is so built that there is nothing left to the imagination,” asks Harding, “or do you provide a canvas for the clients to be creative?”

Most interior fitouts take an old building and strip it back to make it more contemporary and minimalist, but “this is doing the opposite,” says Harding. “This is taking the new and making it something rich and giving that depth to it.” There is a refreshing rawness to this interior, perhaps not appreciated in the photography, and not always intended by the designer either. For example, the holes in the plywood allow glimpses of raw pine studs, when Harding had specified these to be painted black. The interior succeeds in achieving a non-slick appearance, the challenge of the initial brief. Sometimes it takes courage and perseverance to achieve an ‘unfinished’ look, and the trend is a healthy one. Not only is it cheap to build, it is less energy intensive in the process. Sometimes it is what you leave out that makes an interior exceptional.

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