FROM the 1940s through to the '80s, the Builders Arms Hotel, in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, was an important social and political gathering place for Melbourne's indigenous community. In more recent times the hotel seemed to lose its identity, including being everything from a bar and nightclub to a space for bands.
Most recently the place has undergone a major refurbishment, stripping back the ad-hoc recent layers.
"We found everything from taxidermy and gaudy mirrors, to velvet drapes and tropical patterned wallpapers," says designer Dion Hall, co-director of Projects of Imagination.
Hall's brief from owners/chefs Josh Murphy, Andrew McConnell and Anthony Hammond was to remove the eclectic layers to reveal the building's former history, both from the mid-19th century and the 1930s.
"We wanted to get back to a feeling of the old pub, as well as getting more light into the place. The rooms felt far too cavernous," says Murphy.
"We also wanted the interior to reflect the food being served: honest, without gimmicks."
Projects for Imagination removed more from the previous fit-out than they put back in. Changes to the bistro included opening up spaces, discovering passages previously boarded up.
One of the most significant changes involved opening up the rear of the bistro to a courtyard through glass-and-steel doors. Two extensive skylights, almost a metre in depth, also increase natural light. White walls and timber floors provide a neutral backdrop for the new timber joinery, slightly evocative of the work of modernist architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Golden yellow tiles from the 1930s makeover are now a feature, rather than being overshadowed by velvet and chintz.
While the pared-back bistro provides a comfortable environment for diners, it's the restaurant, Moon Under Water (named after an essay by George Orwell), that takes the design up another notch. Located to the rear of the bistro, the 140 square metres is a welcome surprise. Carpet was removed and the original floorboards complete with pock marks, were painted a pale grey. The same hue was used for the diamond-studded banquette seating that frames the dining room.
Black-stained Thonet chairs and crisp linen-covered tables complete the arrangement.
However, it's the feature wall, made from several timber cabinets from the 1800s through to the 1930s, that creates that heart-felt moment. Painted white and elevated on a sideboard, each cabinet is both decorative and functional. One cabinet is used to display wine glasses, while another is used to display a miniature antique boat. Sourced from an antique dealer, these cabinets demonstrate the practicality of the design, as well as the aesthetics.
"We're a multi-disciplinary team. It's not just what things look like. Each element is considered in terms of how this space is used," says Hall, who inserted a new service bar linking the restaurant to the kitchen.
Hammond, who oversees the bistro, was also keen to incorporate an historic lemonade bottle he discovered during the renovation. The shape and markings on this bottle, from the 1930s, have been reworked to create ceramic lamp bases as well as objects arranged on the walls behind the banquette seating. And as Projects of Imagination is multi-disciplinary, they also designed the graphics, including menus.
"We didn't set out to make a huge design statement. We wanted to see the remnants of a great building and reveal its history. The spaces also had to work for our clients, as much as patrons, who appreciate fine dining without the formality that normally entails," says Hall.