Vince Alafaci and Caroline Choker have spent a long time thinking about the problems that we endure living in the city; in the whirlwind of commercial transactions, meet-and-greets, and takeaway cups. More specifically, the couple has spent a lot of time considering what city life is lacking, and how we might try to reclaim that back again. The problem, they realised, was the social disconnection between the blurring faces on the sidewalk. The remedy: old school coffee houses of the 1920s.
Vince is an architect and Caroline is an interior designer, and together they own and run Sydney-based multidisciplinary design firm Acme & Co. The duo are the covert design team responsible for the captivating worlds found in some of the city’s most cherished venues; the Archie Rose Distilling Co., Watson’s Bay Hotel, Fred’s and the infamous Grounds of Alexandria – firstly incarnated in the industrial suburb of Alexander, and now taking new life in a matured CBD site.
The city is – Vince and Caroline realised – often an overwhelming void, simultaneously dense and empty. By contrast, vintage coffee houses embodied an escape from the craziness of the outside world, offering not only a beverage but also an invitation to be a part of the environment.
The Grounds of The City is designed as a sensuous journey that is entirely otherworldly and disconnected from the outside streetscape. Vince and Caroline pulled together a mix of references – siting the building’s own history, French theatre and old world glamour – to construct an eclectic interior that reinterprets nostalgia as the natural habitat for the modern city dweller.
The journey begins from the George Street pavement. Vince and Caroline created a series of apertures on the building’s façade, each with a different story or showcase hinting to the goings on hidden within. This could be live performances or expositions of coffee or art – all evoking a sense of theatre that animates the architecture.
Walking through the doors, you are greeted by a host and guided through the space. The interior is designed to feel completely isolated from the outside world. Within, there is a mix of seating configurations to offer both social and more intimate spaces. Long linear walkways are broken down as you move further in, offering cosy booths and hideaway rooms that can be hired out for private lunches or meetings – all boasting USB ports and power supply.
And while each booth can become a desirable enclave for one to sink into their laptop, a sense of inclusion and community is at the heart of the interior’s design. Long communal eating bars invite conversation between patrons while roving staff ensure that no drink coaster lays bare. The kitchen is a great example of how Vince and Caroline have harnessed design to encourage social interactivity. Designed to look visually transparent, the kitchen mimics the surrounding joinery to camouflage into the broader dining room, rather than carve out its own space.
The Grounds of The City took over two years to complete – an eternity for the hospitality sector. This is a testament to the incredible attention that Vince and Caroline gave to every minute detail. Everything is bespoke – literally everything. The couple spent exhaustive time in the US working for over a year with a supplier to create a bespoke coffee machine, as well as with another supplier to design and prototype chairs, tables, bases and other furniture. Gorgeous antique pendant lights were salvaged from a very old theatre in France to be given new life over the bar. An industrial designer was also involved who worked closely with the pair and the client to workshop objects entirely unique to the space.
Vince and Caroline have safely proclaimed the title of king and queen of the decadent vintage aesthetic within Sydney. The two came together romantically, uniting their distinct practices and technical know-how. But for the pair, the goal of their work supersedes the creation of a well-styled space. Instead, they are both more interested in the psychological impact of a setting; to invite curiosity, summon warm nostalgia and transport people to a more gentle environment. That is their aim with the Grounds of The City, to create a space that visitors can engage with, as well as with each other; the perfect antidote to the qualms of the modern city.
Acme & Co