Melbourne is an unlikely city. Whether it’s the current ‘world’s most livable city’ or not is questionable, though if any other city even thinks of challenging for the title, each and every local feels a pang of jealously or disbelief. It’s unlikely because we’re forever batting way above our average, forever holding our head high as we swing against the big boys.
It’s hard to trace it back to a genesis point, but as is the way with these things, groups of interconnected people started popping up at the same time. Was it something in the water? The zeitgeist? All of a sudden there was Curtin House in the city centre, home to the Rooftop Cinema and Bar, the Metropolis Bookshop, the Cookie restaurant, The Toff in Town bar and the first home of Right Angle publishing. A six-storey building going to waste became a vertical hub of creativity.
The Thousands city guide, created by Right Angle, set the city off. Besides knowing what was Cool or Fool thanks to its weekly email, the city fell under the spell of smart and witty writing, with the guide reporting on everything from shop and bar openings to film, music and book reviews with charm and individuality. It was the first real voice for a new generation and its creativity promoted creativity.
Lamington Drive gallery, established by visionary, workaholic and illustrator representative Jeremy Wortsman will be a Melbourne icon one day. The home to monthly exhibitions and a stable of talented illustrators and artists, Lamington Drive soon expanded to The Compound Interest, which does exactly what it says in its title: bring many and varied businesses together in respect of a common interest. Graphic designer-cum-framer and woodworker Ryan Ward set up his conveniently-located frame workshop United Measures here, ready for any acquisitions made in the gallery or otherwise. His beautiful, simply-detailed frames are all custom built for the client and elegantly belie their craftsmanship. While you’re there, ask him about the toys he handmakes with his dad. Next door is The Modern Motorcycle Company, run by the casually aloof mechanic Christian Condo. Sharing the space are architects, graphic designers and myriad other creatives, the doors are open to the public Wednesday to Saturday with fans making the pilgrimage to the Keele Street, Collingwood premises.
If you make it to the Compound Interest, be sure to keep walking down the street to Cibi. A Japanese café, Cibi is fastidious about quality and simple meals done well, and also perhaps the only local home to great Japanese design, ceramics, textiles and cookware. Architect Zenta Tanaka and family run a tightly-curated, gallery-like retail space that is peaceful, approachable and meant to imply the notion that good design is thoughtful. It’s kind of hard to leave here without something in hand or having spent a long afternoon in the sun talking, reading or drinking coffee.
And as inevitable as the tides, we come to Melbourne’s relationship with coffee. It’s a cliché and it’s annoying, but there’s no hiding from it – Melbourne makes some of the best coffee in the world. It also, collectively, understands coffee like no other city. To outsiders, it may be pretentious or snobbish, but chances are that in any one of the major cities of the world, your coffee is being made by a tattooed, hipster barista from Melbourne. And if not, he or she was taught by one. Not making a good cup is simply out of the question. There’s no one master, but Seven Seeds is a great place to start. What has made this coffee chain’s relationship with Melbourne even stronger is its connection to design and understanding of its place within the business. From floor plans to cups and bags, no self-respecting roaster would be caught dead without a brand image designed to trigger any passer-by’s caffeine reflex.
On streets like Gertrude in Fitzroy, immediately to the city’s north, De Clieu – one of Seven Seeds’ cafés – is full at almost any time of the day. It is the epitome of modernity with standing benches and giant picture-frame windows. But Gertrude Street is primarily known for another operator, Melbourne super-chef Andrew McConnell. He may have other restaurants in Melbourne, but think of this street and you think of him. And vice versa.
Cutler & Co. is the jewel in the crown, and a shrine to modern intelligent design – but that doesn’t interfere with the modern, intelligent food. Continue your stroll down to sparsely-finished, refurbished art deco hotel The Builders Arms and an easy pint on the street can quickly turn into four, finished off with some McConnell-style pub grub. Across the road is the best cocktail place in Melbourne bar none: The Everleigh. Make the most of this authentic speakeasy by dressing up and challenging the bar staff to make something special. What they don’t know isn’t worth knowing. The atmosphere is prohibition-style and moody.
Most locals stick to the city’s ‘Little’ streets – Little Collins, Little Bourke, and so on – and the laneways that connect them to main streets. These are the congregation points. Melbourne is a reluctant beauty; treasures have to be found and discovered, and the Arcades between Collins Street and Bourke Street are testament to this. Melbourne doesn’t really show off – it’s not possible when Sydney is, quite rightfully, doing all of Australia’s peacocking – so nothing really screams for attention.
Chef Ben Shewry of Attica knows this all too well. His small Ripponlea site to the city’s south was recently named in the world’s top 100 restaurants and is the perfect example of an establishment that speaks softly and carries a big, extremely well-prepared stick. His menu is completely local, limiting every food mile, every unnecessary process and producing world-class Victorian food.
Making sense of the constant changes and newcomers to the scene is Broadsheet. In a few short years it has become an online media go-to source for all things Melbourne (and now Sydney). Together with a quarterly-produced print newspaper, Broadsheet is, whether it thinks so or not, the voice of the city. With a café or enterprising new fashion brand opening every other day, it is never short of material. Secrets worth discovering are the bars and restaurants that dot the city with no discernable entrance. Look for Duckboard Place, AC/DC Lane and Oliver Lane. At Hosier Lane you’ll find phenomenal tapas at Movida and also the worldfamous wall of graffiti.
For those inclined, the Citylights Project gallery acts as a kind of curator and host to these laneway arts. At the bottom end is the Forum Theatre, which opens the door to Federation Square, a controversial city square project that was meant to act as an architectural drawcard for the city. The results aren’t quite what anyone expected, not least the architects. When it opened, locals didn’t know exactly how to engage with it – was it a congregation point? A dining hub? A live music venue? It’s kind of all these things and none at the same time. What it has become used for is a thoroughfare, a meeting place where you don’t necessarily spend time, but are always engaging with. And its massive television screen has regularly hosted international football games at 4am to thrilled audiences of thousands.
Definitely go to Federation Square for the Australian leg of the National Gallery of Victoria’s art collection. The main building of the NGV is just down the road: with its cascading water facade, this is a primary school kid’s excursion dream come true, and is also home to the international collection.
Known for its fine attention to detail, cosmetics specialist Aesop also hails from Melbourne. From its Collingwood head offices its empire is ruled with an iron fist. Look for several, beautifully unique and on-brand stores throughout Melbourne and its suburbs. These guys prove that antipodean companies can trade on well-executed products and design, and need not rely on crass Australiana for mass appeal. A proud local.
Most Melbournians relish the love-hate relationship they have with their city, particularly if they work in design. Many leave, but most return, realising the amazing relationships and opportunities the city can offer. Maybe it’s because there’s a nonchalance to design that works both for and against us, but then, maybe it’s the ‘fair go’ we’re all afforded. Plus, Melbourne loves a returning hero.
I love leaving Melbourne, because that way I always get to come back. And of course there’s the coffee.