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52: 10 - Sensory Lab

Name: Sensory Lab
Address: 297 Little Collins St Melbourne VIC (David Jones Entrance)
Phone: 9645 0065
Served by: Simone & Brett 

If there is something that Super Tectonics has learnt since commencing Project 52 this year, well us Melburnians are really spoilt for choice when it comes to hole in the wall cafes, new bars and great restaurants. So “Why?” we hear all you design snobs asking, would we review an establishment that places itself within a mainstream Department Store? Because Sensory Lab not only stands on it’s own two feet here, but it pretty much towers over good ol’ DJ’s.   

So what’s good about Sensory Lab?

The front entry to Sensory Lab is fully glazed and in true retail style, it’s on display. But rather than simply having glass with merchandise behind it, there is a great landscape of frontage that Sensory lab offers to the passer by. Not only is there illuminated light box signage, they have painted/vinyl signage illuminated with a dramatic yet atmospheric floor pendant. The left side of the street frontage presents a tidy takeaway window whilst the right has a romantic two-seater table nestled in the window adjacent to some great third wave style merchandising in the style of drips and pours.

 The café itself is located in entry into the David Jones Menswear store from Little Collins St. And thus it has a tough gig, with most people using it as a thoroughfare, with main channels of traffic running to the left and right of the primary entry point. One would think that with all this traffic and people coming and going through three entry points (left access, right access and elevator) that the space would feel busy and frantic, but on the contrary. With the takeaway window (beautifully detailed with steel frames) located at the front, there isn’t a lot of movement through the seated space. So once you are in and you’re seated, it’s actually reasonably peaceful. Yes people come and go, but it’s comfortable.

 Upon entry you see a white tiled hob which serves multiple purposes; point of contact with staff to be seated, Point of sale for bills as well as retail layout. The white tiled hob appears to float on the black raised plinths and this bench is very much the entry statement. But in true retail style, it’s over stocked with too much product. Yes they are a café and we acknowledge that they choose to sell product but it simply overpowers en-masse and hides the beautiful design beneath. It would be great to see the Sensory Lab team reassess their retail display, tidy everything up to reach a happy medium. 

 The service area is tight but with a variety of table types it feels bigger and the key here is the slabs of marble used for all table tops. The milky white acts as a secondary visual plane, floating above the dark marble floor that hides all hospitality sins. But the clever design feature in this area is the mirrored panelling above the shelves and timber sections up to the ceiling. This is a fun little trick that reflects beautiful dim light around the ceiling zone and gives the illusion of more height. The ceilings are quite low and stepped on varying levels, with a lot of services scattered throughout, but the low level lighting and huge hanging pendant light cleverly distract you from this.

 The designers have employed some quirky and innovative design features that double as great functional and aesthetic solutions. The cake display and oversize pendant act as semi-screening elements fro the main thoroughfare. Glazed cupboards use the old textured shower screen glass, giving the illusion of transparency but concealing all the contents behind. The wash zone is out of the way and tucked in a corner, but power outlets to this area are cleverly mounted on timber and inset into the tiles splashback in corresponding colour set out-which is so well considered.

 However the highlight for me was the single seater high benches. Banked against the rear wall, the timber joinery on the tables is wholesome and here at Super Tectonics we love the idea of a one seater – perfect when you just want to curl up for a coffee by yourself.  But directly in front of you, mounted on the divider panel is a small circular mirror. So after lunch or coffee you can steal a quick glance at yourself, make sure your face is food free, and be on your merry way.

 From a materials perspective there isn’t a pop of bright colour in the place. It’s all dusty greens and creamy marbles and although it borders on insipid, the warmth in here is so wonderfully cocooning I’d prefer to stay in for hours on end, in comparison to the stark over simulated, triple height retail space a couple of steps beyond. 

 What could be better about Sensory Lab?

The view to the takeaway coffee area back of house is quite prominent and it’s hard to keep areas like this clean. That’s why we at Super Tectonics are firm believers in a semi or full concealed back of house area for coffee prep zones. In addition to this Sensory Lab needs to be de-cluttered. It has such beautiful bones, but you can’t see them! Clear the main entry hob, the ice-cream freezer off to the side and general bits and pieces around the place and this will give the space a strong, clear identity.  

 What’s its thing?

Sensory Lab doesn’t do anything spectacular, but they do lots of little good things and sometimes this is a great approach to take. Contextually they are located within a HUGE department store and trying to establish your own identity in that position is difficult. No it’s not ground breaking and no it doesn’t push boundaries, but it holds it’s own and that’s to be commended. Oh and the floor mats – so many of them, but marble isn’t a good hospitality floor so it’s completely understandable. 

 Defining Design Details

  • Steel detailing  - from hooks on walls, to timber table bases this steel provided a lovely aged quality to the space.
  • Single seater bench with mirror – I felt like a budgie in a cage having a conversation with myself. Super quirky and super cute.
  • Shower screen glass to cupboards – I love that this material is making a resurgence.
  • Metal bar to chair ledges – such an easy solution to wear and tear.
  • The ambient lighting –so much better than typical over lit retail spaces!