Higher Ground – an award-winning, Melbourne cafe that goes beyond the cliché

Architect:​ Design Office
Leading Architects:​ Mark Simpson and Damien Mulvihill
Client:​ Nathan Toleman, Top Paddock, The Kettle Black
Location​: Melbourne
Completion Year: ​2016
Image Courtesy: ​Sean Fennessy
Company Profile: DesignOffice, is a Melbourne-based studio that was established in 2008. They have won numerous
awards for the ability to respond to each project and scale with careful consideration. Their
design responses are shaped with an understanding and empathy towards each client and
every brief. From the birth of each concept to the construction completion, the studio is
constantly informed by a continual process of exploration and design refinement.

Higher Ground, a powerhouse turned all-day eatery, and DesignOffice’s latest creation in
Little Bourke Street, Melbourne has been the talk of the town since it opened last year. The
accolades culminated in the project taking home Best Hospitality Design at the Australian
Interior Design Awards 2017.

In a city renowned for its hip cafe culture, a converted industrial space almost sounds like a
cliché. Fortunately, Higher Ground deftly eschews the established conventions of this culture
and instead, challenges and expands hospitality design principles. The judges of the
Australian Interior Design Awards particularly praised DesignOffice for “redefining of the
typical café typology into a high-end hospitality venue, more akin to a hotel lobby than a
casual eatery.” In this respect, DesignOffice successfully fulfilled the brief supplied to them
by clients; Nathan Toleman and the team behind Melbourne’s famed Top Paddock and The
Kettle Black. With a host of successful hospitality venues under their belt, Toleman and his
team are no strangers to spaces that challenge the status quo. They briefed DesignOffice for
a space that evoked the sense of a hotel lobby, a setting which people occupy in different
capacities throughout the day.

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Central to encouraging a sense of transitory movement, was the fit-out of multiple levels
within the cavernous industrial space. To do so meant overcoming several practical
challenges. As an old powerhouse, the space was original one level. DesignOffice were
eager not to lose the value of the setting’s scale, nor its distinct industrial aesthetic. As a
result, the team stated that “the design approach was anchored around the creation of a
series of tiered platforms, providing both intimacy and layered perspective within the
extensive volume of the site.” These platforms are comprised of six different levels which
create a series of elevated seating areas for diners. Within the levels, different settings are
offered with diners able to choose between couches, stools or tables depending on their
needs at different points of the day.

To honour the nature of the space, the site purposefully plays on the tension between the
exposed brick, concrete forms of the original building, and the architectural interventions.
Added texture is provided through the demarcation of intimate settings by the colour palette
and the eclectic use of furniture fittings. Earthy, natural tones of chocolate brown, charcoal
and khaki in the couches, seating and wooden fittings all complement the abundance of
foliage dotted throughout. Although connected in their shared natural palette, each section
supplies a different tactile experience. There are multiple rich layers of textures evident
within the materials, which range from terrazzo, cork, painted steel, stone, black fibreboard
to solid timbers. Along with rugs and plush furniture, the lighting selections also heightens
the sense of intimacy, with each section looking nothing like the other. Nooks are filled with
lamps whilst the open spaces below is flooded with natural light from large arched windows.
The earthy toned materials and furnishings are given a contemporary and industrial edge
with the midnight-blue steel staircase which punctuates the space. The cool tone of the blue
and its sharp geometric expression makes it a natural fit with existing concrete pillars. Thus,
the dialogue between the industrial space and its contemporary fittings create a cohesive
and layered experience for patrons.

Higher Ground’s greatest feat is ultimately the reconciliation of these two competing
elements; the old and the new. In the end, the building allows diners to enjoy the vast
openness of the industrial space within its vaulted ceilings whilst still offering a sense of cosy
intimacy within its various settings.

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