Trois Bijoux

Aug 13, 2009
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by Peter Bennetts
  • Designer rh
  • Architect WSH Architects

Constraints often produce the best results in interior design, especially when it’s living space that’s in short supply.

But it’s difficult to get the most out of limited living dimensions when a standardised approach is taken. Cue the bespoke approach – the careful orchestration of one-off solutions tailored to the specific needs of an environment. The three Melbourne projects shown here celebrate this notion in spades: three otherwise ordinary habitats that have been turned into inspiring, vibrant and (importantly) liveable and practical living environments at the hands of their architects.

Not far from the shoreline in St Kilda, there’s a moody-looking apartment block that has been there since 1919. The flats therein are quite large by today’s standards, but the rooms are compartmentalised and the windows, while plentiful, are a bit on the small side. Architect Rowena Hockin of rh + architects was asked to modernise a section of one of these apartments for a client who has had a long career in television and film production and has lived in the flat’s elegant rooms for quite a few years.

Avoiding the expense and upheaval of structural changes, Hockin worked with the existing layout to create a sleek, light kitchen and laundry/utility room, a versatile home office, and a rejuvenated and very cleverly planned bathroom. The separate toilet has also been refitted, repainted and fitted with enough shelf space for the client’s collection of industry awards. There’s an Emmy, a Logie (yes really) and a raft of other gongs – giving credence to the myth that these awards can and do end up being stashed in the smallest room.

When I toured this project with the client, we started off in the laundry. Here, Hockin has fitted a well-resolved arrangement of differently-shaped cupboards and rails either side of what is essentially a passageway linking the outside landing to the kitchen. It was an old-fashioned laundry-inside-the-backdoor space before Hockin used storage to maximise its functionality. Small things, like a steel-tube rail especially designed for hanging drying clothes above the laundry sink, have made the client’s life a lot easier.

The new kitchen is a similarly practical galley, with white Corian benchtops and glossy white painted cupboards fitted with large handles that are ideal for hanging things on. The client is delighted with the huge cutlery drawer and the way the stove, the built-in Corian sink and the concealed fridge form a sequence that enables ease of movement between work spaces. Above, an elongated fluorescent light illuminates the area. Hockin carried the Corian theme through to the bathroom vanity. The long, narrow bathroom has also been fitted with a corner spa bath, a mirror fitted to the existing storage and a generous shower that all combine to cleverly belie the constrained proportions of the room.
Next to the kitchen, the home office is a hybrid working and living area. Hockin has fitted a long desk, with two seating bays in case the client has someone working with her. Audiovisual equipment and files are housed neatly in storage boxes on castors, and kept under the desk for wheeling out when needed. Opposite is a wall of shelves specifically tailored to accommodate the client’s book collection: here the ends of the shelving unit have been fitted with smaller shelves to house (and hide) CDs and DVDs. From the office one looks through to two formal rooms that have been refreshed with a new coat of paint to tie them in with the cannily reworked ‘everyday use’ rooms. While all rooms benefit from direct window light, the predominantly white scheme lends added brightness while the original jarrah floors visually anchor and link the spaces.
On the other side of the city, a house of a slightly older vintage – but with similarly compartmentalised rooms – has been given bespoke treatment by fmd architects. Architect Fiona Dunin worked within the existing footprint of a Victorian terrace house to create a functional living space for her clients and their three young children. In the existing part of the house, part of the hallway wall was removed to open up a living room to the rest of the house. Here, Dunin has run a strip of contrasting carpet (all carpets are by Tretford) to demarcate the room’s threshold where once the wall did so. In the newly painted and carpeted bedrooms upstairs the same device has been used, with the occasional strip of carpet employed to lead the eye along a hallway and into another room.

Throughout the existing section of the house, Dunin has used mirrors and other reflective surfaces to create prismatic intrigue. In the downstairs living space, a mirrored spherical light fitting, designed by Tom Dixon, offers a fish-eye reflection of the whole room. There’s another such light fitting on the approach to the upper level of the house, where Dunin has created a bedroom and home office space just under the roof. The winding Victorian stair that links all the levels is designed to beguile, with mirrors on the ceilings and bulkheads at every level tricking the eye and reflecting the unexpected.

The new living, dining and kitchen extension signals a change in mood from Victorian-labyrinthine-prismatic to 21st century open living. To unite the two sections, Dunin has repeated and reinterpreted details specifically tailored to each space. Panels of mdf or plywood have various functions – in the stairwell a sliding panel acts as a safety barrier; in the kitchen a plywood panel wraps up a wall and across the ceiling to unite kitchen joinery with living space. Joinery throughout is slightly disjointed, with storage units and planes not quite touching one another. “In these old houses, lines are never straight, so it never works trying to make things lie flush with each other,” says Dunin. Edge details have also been used to tie rooms together: the laminate joinery units in the kitchen and bathrooms have been trimmed with a plywood edge that, in turn, harmonises with the plywood wall panels and the bamboo flooring used throughout the new extension.

Prismatic intrigue also characterises WSH Architects’ fitout of an apartment in nearby Kew. The apartment, one in a block of four designed by renowned Melbourne architect Roy Simpson, is on the banks of the Yarra and overlooks a forest of trees. For architect Andrew Simpson it was a matter of bringing the external elements specific to the site – the river, the trees and the stars above – into the interior. Using physical and digital modelling techniques, Simpson devised a series of cleverly placed mirrors to create the illusion of a 360-degree view, dramatically capturing and reflecting the shimmering waters of the Yarra and its surrounding foliage.

Even more strikingly – and the effect is particularly good at night – the curved walls that arc, cascade and fan out like so many pieces of folded paper are doubled and quadrupled via the mirrors to the extent that, for the newcomer, it’s a little difficult to tell reality from its reflected opposite. The effect assails the senses on entry and can be enjoyed from the living/dining space as well as the adjacent passageway that leads to the downstairs bedroom. Inside the front door, one panel of mirror is fitted with a slender handle that allows one to open the ‘wall’ and access a powder room.

Again at night, the living room ceiling display of computer-controlled LED lighting forms constellations of ellipses and arcs and creates the effect of a starry sky. Depending on the computer setting, this can be in static mode to allow the geometries to assert themselves, or flickering to create a sense of movement across the ceiling. Laser-cut ceiling panels also celebrate the interplay of geometries and invite scrutiny from different parts of the room.

Joinery, fabric, marble flooring and paint colours have been taken from the eucalypts that line the riverbanks. A reconstituted stone bench in the kitchen, adjoining the living area, serves as a weighty, sarcophagus-like element under which the architect has placed computer-generated cut-out panels that layer together to form variegated tunnels in which kitchen bench sitters can place their legs. Simpson thought about the dynamics of kitchen conversation, and directed these openings so that they intersect and provide comfortable seating for four interlocutors chatting across the diagonal.

In all three projects, the power of bespoke design and detailing is evident in the way ordinary spaces have been transformed into bejewelled and inspiring habitats. In a world that seems to be becoming increasing standardised and one-size-fits-all, it’s a refreshing approach that celebrates the particular beauty of materials, colours and geometries at the same time as producing liveable, workable living solutions for the clients who live in these spaces.

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