With George Calombaris’s favourite painting as its starting point, March Studio has created a stately golden space for the new Press Club. By Fleur Watson.

George Calombaris and March Studio reincarnate The Press Club

Melbourne’s Allan Powell set an early benchmark in the theatre of restaurant design with his wonderfully brooding, atmospheric interiors for Café Di Stasio and the Prince of Wales in St Kilda. Powell describes the presence of an “unspoken contract” between the restaurant and the diner, in which the reality of everyday life is suspended for the duration of the meal and a fantasy world is assembled around the experience of fine dining.

Recently, Melbourne has enjoyed a new wave of restaurants led by visionary chefs-turned-restaurateurs who clearly see value in investing in a well-designed interior to complement the quality of food and service. Predominantly, these bustling, relaxed yet aspirational spaces are filled with natural light, open to the street and expansive in scale, pursuing a deliberate move away from the formality of the fine-dining experience as an intimate, special occasion within a small, carefully orchestrated space.

The new incarnation of The Press Club turns this strategy on its head. Recognising the need to create a diverse set of dining environments for customers, chef George Calombaris and business partner George Sykiotis took the risk of closing their large-scale fine-dining room – the original Press Club – and radically reconceptualising the business model. 

A chance meeting with Rodney Eggleston and Anne-Laure Cavigneaux of March Studio – known for their inventive shops for Aesop and, most recently, the ‘‘brick and click’’ retail outlet Sneakerboy – resulted in a rapid collaboration. The ground-floor site of the original Press Club – housed in the former Herald Sun building – was stripped back to its shell and transformed over 10 weeks into Gazi, with an emphasis on contemporary Greek street food. The dominating element of the new space became a sinuously curved ceiling constructed of upturned terracotta pots – a delightful surface that March Studio designed both for acoustic performance and as a cheeky nod to its Australian-Greek heritage.

Impressed by March Studio’s commitment to the project, Calombaris and Sykiotis regrouped with the designers to consider turning the space next door into the new iteration of The Press Club and, alongside it, a tiny, experimental test kitchen called Press Club Projects. The site was the former restaurant’s bar, storeroom and chef’s changing quarters – a difficult, small, rectangular space. Here, the brief shifted in intensity, with an aspiration to create an intimate interior and carefully crafted ‘‘stage’’ that would reflect the craft and precision required to create food at the degustation level. Seating only 32, with a dining room the size of most commercial kitchens, an interior emerged that recalled the experience of fine dining in the grand European tradition.

A conceptual starting point for the design was derived from Calombaris’s favoured painting – an iconic image of the Christian martyr and Greek patron saint St George slaying a dragon. March Studio translated the qualities and colour present in the painting into the material palette of the interior – the golden halo over St George’s head, the richness of the fabric of the flag and the depth of the sky all became key drivers for the assemblage of the tight space.

 St George also presides over the otherwise unmarked entry from Flinders Street, displayed in a vitrine within an anonymous wall of gold tubes that are racked to make a tactile surface, with only the slightest fold suggesting where one might enter the restaurant beyond.

Once inside, the diner is immediately enveloped within the compression of the space. A series of hand-folded brass shapes flow overhead in a seemingly organic manner, from mirrored wall to street-level window. Here, as at Gazi, the ceiling provides the major design move. At The Press Club, however, this strategy evolves in precision and materiality. These curving ellipses respond to the location of each booth and hold bespoke lighting for each table, casting the diner in a warm golden glow. Eggleston describes the inspiration for these complex forms as being derived equally from the golden halo within his client’s treasured painting and his own childhood memories of seeing the elegant beauty of the shapes and forms created by tight coils of raw roofing material as his stepfather, a roofing manufacturer, worked the material off the roll.

Every moment here is carefully orchestrated and considered. The ceiling forms are lined with perforated steel diffusing sound, while intermittent small formed tubes conceal services and speakers. The designers’ hand has touched every aspect of this project: the booths curve with buttery leather banquettes with custom stitching and blond timber screens that can be opened or closed for levels of intimacy, table mats stamped out of an elegant cutout of cork, the wine list that arrives as a complimentary publication. At the eastern end of the room, hovering over the brass and Corian bar, a tiered rack of yellow steel and cork suspends exquisite hand-blown glassware like a chandelier. The interior feels, paradoxically, intensely rich and ornamental and yet embedded in a pragmatism and restraint that is clearly visible to the eye. Every detail is on display. 

While the Greek-inspired references are clearly acknowledged – the icon of St George, the central catwalk of azure blue carpet and thickly washed paint over the bathroom walls – there is something about the overall experience that is equally reminiscent of the old-school formality and patina of a Viennese café. Food is carefully carried on simple yet beautifully crafted trays from the basement kitchen, wine glasses are lit and hung from their stems over the bar, the leathery booths are washed in the reflected yellow glow from overhead – the intimacy of scale encountered when slipping into a dimly lit corner of Adolf Loos’s famed American Bar comes to mind.

With Gazi, March Studio extends on a lineage of projects that engage primarily with a simple yet heroic material with experimentation to carve out interiors of exceptional quality and craftsmanship. At The Press Club, we see a maturity in these ideas but also an elegance and sophistication emerge to produce an intimate, theatrical interior layered with cultural references that transcends its materiality and offers a missing dimension to the Melbourne fine-dining experience. It seems the contract between restaurateur and diner has been renewed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "Georgian splendour".

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Fleur Watson is a curator for RMIT Design Hub and a former editor of Monument magazine.