This is the place where everything that Super Tectonics is thinking about, talking about, seeing, doing, listening to, creating and so on gets documented.

52: 18 - The School of Life

Name: The School of Life
Address: 699 Bourke St, Melbourne City
Owner / Chair: Alain de Botton
Served by: Elle and Genevieve
Design by: Quino & Dayne from Fieldwork

They say school years are the best years of you life. A packed lunch, free travel and a workday that starts at 8:30 and finishes at 3:30pm – what a life! Sadly, my old principal Mr. Sidorko won’t let me back in the gates, but The School of Life in Melbourne certainly will. So for this Project 52, Super Tectonics went back to School.

So what’s good about The School of Life?

It’s so much more than a café. Established in the UK by modern day Philosopher Alain de Botton and now with numerous locations around the world, each The School of Life provides an alternative education medium that addresses the dilemmas of modern everyday life. Through small seminars and classes it focuses on topics such as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships and asks the tough questions you’ve never asked yourself. That is until you walk past said questions framed in the cafes front window and then feel like you are being centered out, in a good way. And these framed questions in the ever-evolving front window display gets your attention. But when you walk inside you realise this isn’t just any café.

There are two halves to this space designed by the team from Fieldwork. One half is devoted to coffee. A place to meet; a place to talk. A place to buy a book and read, or a place to bring a book and read. The staff are respectful, they don’t rush you but leave you in peace. Or if you are up for a chat, they’ll talk, not just chit chat talk though, D&M kinds of talk.  Books by Alain de Botton and other School of life authors are beautifully displayed in a simply lime washed plywood joinery bookshelf – and this materiality is constant throughout the space.

The basic coffee making area is positioned neatly and snuggly at the back, with you eye getting drawn up to the high ceiling from the soft up-washed lighting. The large communal table, with pressed copper pendants hanging above, encourages conversations with those you rub shoulders with during the day and serves as the official mingling area for the seminars and classes held at night.

The other half of the space is a wonderful exercise in acoustics and scale. Used as a more intimate seating area during the day, smaller tables allow individuals or tiny groups their own space – however at night this area is transformed into the learning zone. In here, behind the large sliding door, rolled closed on beautiful hardware, Seminars and classes are held. The undulating timber batten rear wall wraps up and over in a sensuous, rhythmical ceiling curve, rising and falling towards the front of the room where it reaches it’s peak and disappears into the monstrous glazed front window, washing the space with light even on a dreary day.

But the most amazing element within here has to be the heavy blue curtain to one side of the space, draping thickly and applying a beautiful rich texture to the walls. It’s modernist-esque concealed fixing means it falls from no-where in it’s recessed alcove and just cocoons the space – until it peaks at the front extending to the full height of the glazing so dramatically yet, so softly.

The overall brand is resolved. From the books themselves to The School of Life font - easy to read, simple colours, slightly personable but somewhat detached. Is it talking to me? Me? The framed posed questions in the front window extend to simply printed table cards and the back of the business cards – they are constantly challenging you to think and discuss and it’s deep.

What could be better about The School of Life?

As beautiful as the materiality is, the back wall behind the counter is a tad bland. A beautifully positioned ‘posed question’ in a frame would be super subtle and just resolve this area a little more.

The poster of events that lists all the upcoming seminars and classes looks life an afterthought. It’s a vinyl applied poster and given how simply refined everything else is in the space, this lack of detail really stands out – frame it and make it clean.

A fan positioned on the floor in chilly Autumn is a dead giveaway it gets a bit hot and stuffy in the space, so investing in ventilation and cooling should be one before Melbourne has another killer heatwave this summer.

What’s its thing?

You could stay here for the whole day without buying anything and the staff would treat you like a bestie. But please don’t do that, at least buy a coffee, or a book, or signup to a class, this place will change you – for real.

Defining Design Details

  • It’s smell – yes we know that sounds creepy, but it smells great in this place.
  • That curtain – aesthetics & acoustics = awesome. I sense a soft furnishing revival peoples.
  • Lighting – Indirect up-washing. My god The School of Life takes the design cake for ambience.
  • Those questions – Aside from being a beautiful font, they just stop you in your tracks and make you question yourself.

Waiting for my coffee, a lovely School of Life staff member floated past me, simply smiled and placed a card on the table in front of me that posed the question: “What Plausible Government action would make you leave the country?” Two coffees and 45 minutes later, the staff member had sat down and the discussion now included two compete strangers.

You can design a place and they will come; but at The School of Life, it re-designs you.