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September 29, 2023

All in the design

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The importance of design in cafes and restaurants

What is the most important factor in deciding where to eat out? The menu, the wine list, or maybe the friendliness of the staff who greet you? You might be surprised to discover that the design of the cafe or restaurant is often a clincher, especially when trying somewhere new.

‘Design is like an iceberg’: Bayleaf

‘Design is like an iceberg – you only see the top part,’ says Dan Readman, co-owner of Bayleaf. He thought about design a great deal after taking over the iconic cafe and deciding it needed some renovations. He was conscious that, though an upgrade was needed – both for the customers and the staff, change for its own sake is not always appreciated.

‘People have ownership over cafes – you don’t want to be that business owner who comes in and changes everything,’ he says. Luckily for Dan, he knew the mindset of his customers, having been a regular at Bayleaf before buying it. He had ideas (‘we wanted to clean it up and get more space and functionality’) but neither the creative drive nor the time to undertake such a big project himself.

Enter stage left, Julie King, a designer with her own agency, Whitewood. ‘She saved my design life!’ says Dan. Julie was also a regular customer of Bayleaf so quickly understood Dan’s intentions to keep the essence of the cafe.

Julie completed a four-year university degree to become a designer. More recent graduates tend to call themselves ‘interior architects’, a term perhaps more indicative of the full range of responsibility that Julie took on for Bayleaf – in addition to the creativity of the design, she also project managed the entire job, from council approvals through tender processes and materials procurement to consultation with structural engineers as required.

Julie based the design around her personal ethos of sustainable living. She enjoyed incorporating pressed metal and New York subway style tiles into her design for Bayleaf. Her top tips for design of eateries is to consider the ergonomics of seating (‘you see bar seating where the stools don’t reach’) and lighting (‘when it works, you don’t notice it but you pay attention when it’s wrong’).

‘The physical world is very different from drawings’: Milk Bar

Combining creativity and practical know-how is also the ethos of Balanced Earth, the company behind the recent redesign of The Balcony and as well as the neighbouring Brunswick Heads cafes, Footbridge and The Milk Bar.

Balanced Earth have two arms to the business – design and construction. In fact, co-director Luke Wrecher is a registered builder as well as an artist. The Milk Bar is a showcase for Balanced Earth’s ethos of using recycled materials where possible. Seats are made from Oregon beams from the Byron nightclub La La Land, still showing scorch marks from the fire. The table is made from teak floorboards salvaged from one of Byron’s earliest houses.

‘The physical world is very different from drawings. Our approach means that we need to be more fluid with our designs,’ says Luke. ‘The materials – like found objects – start to dictate the design rather than trying to over-engineer.’

Jade Campbell-Scott, co-owner and chef at the Milk Bar, remembers the renovation well. ‘I helped with the demolition – we didn’t even know what we’d find,’ he says. ‘Then I got out of the way. Chefs make things that look great but don’t have to last very long; these guys make things that potentially last forever.’

‘The atmosphere, the colours, the vibe are everything’: Mez Club

‘If you’d asked me eight years ago if I was a creative person, I’d have said no,’ says Emma Thomson, co-owner of The Mez Club. Given that she was the creative brain behind an extremely ambitious restaurant renovation, her answer would now have to be yes.

‘We learned very quickly that the atmosphere, the colours and the vibes are everything – that’s what will make someone walk in the door,’ Emma reflects of her many years running food businesses. ‘And there has to be a pay-off between visual stimulation and practical requirements.’

Unlike Dan at Bayleaf and the Milk Bar team, Emma decided not to use an external architect or designer. ‘I have tried that before but personally it didn’t work,’ she says. Already faced with the challenge of how best to open up a disused mezzanine space, Emma upped the degree of difficulty by deciding to include arches and curved-edge surfaces. ‘I spent hours on Pinterest trying to get the right shaped arch,’ she says. ‘I got it wrong about five times.’

Despite The Mez Club having opened less than a year ago, Emma’s focus on design is not over. ‘What am I going to do now as the temperature drops?,’ she wonders. ‘It’s open and breezy – perfect for the summer months – but now we are thinking of putting in a fireplace and changing the colours of the fabrics and cushions to make it warmer.’

Emma sums up the importance of design in eateries perfectly: ‘It’s no good having the best food and wine list if your customers are freezing!.’

Bayleaf: Marvel St, Byron Bay (@bayleafcoffee) Mez Club: Marvel St, Byron Bay (@themezclubbyronbay) Milk Bar: The Terrace, Brunswick Heads (@milkbarbruns)


Bayleaf: Dan Readman and Julie King 

MezClub_Mezzanine design_VPearson

The Mez Club: Mezzanine design


The Milk Bar: Jade Campbell-Scott at Milk Bar

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