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Tradition adds to a modern blend

The devil is in the detail for designer Chris Connell, writes Stephen Crafti.

The devil is in the detail for designer Chris Connell, writes Stephen Crafti.

Ross House in Flinders Lane, or R.E.Ross as it's formally titled, has a strong architectural presence. Originally designed by Sydney-based practice Sulman & Power, the late 19th-century building was built for wholesale importers Sargood, Butler, Nichol & Ewan Limited.

While most of the ground floor is still used by the co-operative, a portion has been given over to Dukes Coffee Roasters. And although barely 60 square metres in area, this cafe offers a different vision to pop-up coffee houses.

"My clients, Peter and Dianne Frangoulis, wanted a traditional-style venue, capturing the ambience of Melbourne in the 1940s and '50s when new European-style coffee places started to appear," says designer Chris Connell.

Designed to seat only 20 people, all chairs and bar stools are taken on the day I visit. Most people line up behind the bar waiting to be served by a team of baristas. Serving two blends, a milk-based coffee, Dukes Express Blend, and a Ross House Blend (with a percentage of the sale of each bag of beans from the latter going to Ross House), there's a continual buzz through the space.

A small lull is shortlived, with people wanting to buy beans or experience the coffee in situ or takeaway. "It's a sophisticated clientele who are discerning, both with coffee and where they have it," says Connell. "Even if you have a great interior, it means absolutely nothing if there's no one inside."

While Connell was given a pint-size space, he has treated every centimetre as though relishing great coffee. The floor, for example, features vintage Belgium tiles, originally found in an apartment of about the same area. The fluted timber Victorian ash walls are recycled and come from a shed outside Melbourne.

"My clients were keen to use recycled materials, as well as include sustainable methods in their business," says Connell, pointing out the milk on tap, the absence of bottles or cartons, and the use of biodegradable products.

Part of the bar has been reworked to display pastries. The rest of the bar is fluted timber with recycled timber used on the bench.

"We had to design a new tool to create this fluted effect," says Connell, who feels the effect is reminiscent of the work of some of Melbourne's postwar furniture makers, such as Schulim Krimper and, later, Dario Zoureff.

This fluted timber continues on the walls, concealing storage, as well as providing a backdrop for built-in shelves. And to magnify the effect, Connell included an elongated bronze mirror along an entire wall.

Other areas, such as the wall behind the bar, feature a stucco lustro (polished plaster) effect. This finish is a contrast to the original raw concrete ceiling, complete with exposed sprinkler system.

"The fitout is quite raw. I wanted it to be honest, rather than presenting a sleek minimal design that said nothing about the product or the people who come here," Connell says.

To understand the workmanship involved in executing this design, Connell points out a 12-centimetre length in the tiled floor at the base of the bar. As this area couldn't be fitted with a tile, Connell, also an artist, spent hours on his back with a fine brush, replicating the tile pattern on plaster. He also designed the simple ceramic crockery, contemporary, but with a sense of the 1940s.

And rather than a standard blackboard, with the usual scrawl, Connell devised a pegboard to advertise the coffee on offer. "I'm like my clients. If you don't put in the effort, you don't get the results."

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