Design Down Under

Hand-scraped white oak on a refined palette: Albert Road apartment, Melbourne

An architect’s desire to demonstrate how timber could seamlessly and lightly express the textures and palette for an entire apartment was the driving force behind the contemporary refurbishment of a residential unit in Albert Road, central Melbourne.

The result is a series of simple, sculptural forms – played out within a carved tranquillity created by hand-scraped and limed American white oak.

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Almost untouched since it was built 30 years ago, the current owners engaged Melbourne architect Stephen Jolson to gut the apartment and reclaim the spaces.

“One of the clients wanted a very light palette of materials – basically a white apartment. And our response was to use materials we could lay up to express their textures instead of actual white, which would have been very stark, particularly with the north-west orientation,” said Jolson.

“We wanted to showcase timber as the base material and to show how one material could actually be seamlessly used for the palette, including the flooring and furniture – even the bed. We chose to layer the materials in colour, tone and finish, and felt the American oak was the right way of doing that.”

Jolson specialises in contemporary design and describes the end result as ‘very refined materials in a very refined apartment’.

“The oak choice was made quite quickly – we looked at a range of floors, but we have done a number of projects with white oak, and in this case we liked the product because of its ‘matt’ and ‘dull’ finish – the graininess and rawness were also what we wanted to showcase.” He emphasises, however, that high-end residential projects should not just be about showmanship: “It is about using very good quality material in a very limited palette.”

“We don’t respond to trends at all – we prefer to look for materials that have integrity. The principal criterion is: does it work in the context of the design?

“In the case of this apartment, the white oak is a very successful product … each room here flows into the next and your eye is led by the materials in this seamless way.”

In contrast to the complexity of the views and activity of inner city living, Jolson sees Albert Road as a ‘Sanctuary in the Sky’ – with expression of the timber at its core. The American oak floor with its 190mm engineered boards was chosen for its subtle characteristic colour and matt sheen to absorb the abundant light from an expanse of windows and to reflect softness throughout the apartment.

In an interesting twist, the floorboards are rotated in sections to match the radial structural grid of the base building. The same American oak floorboards have been used to build the custom-designed dining table. Precise detailing is executed to perfection and the table panels align with the floor, including vertical and horizontal joints. That principle extends to the oak master bed, bedhead wall and bathroom joinery.

Jolson added the joinery is a key part of the ‘built-in’ aspect of the project – “using credenzas to support artwork and objects, which also become practical items; joinery that becomes kitchen, that becomes furniture”.

“The whole thing was about designating spaces – the kitchen is designated by one monolithic block of (unfilled Roman travertine) stone, the table is a monolithic block of timber and the credenza in the middle of the room is a monolith of recycled fumed oak veneer. The linear direction of the bench, floorboards, and joinery, gravitates to each aspect of the view.”

He also points out the subtle accenting of the main room with different shades of green: chairs, coffee tables and artwork all pick up on the changing greens in the park opposite. The carpet was hand-loomed in Nepal; natural wool against luxurious leather couch; contrasting with felt, linen and lacquer for furniture.

Jolson likes using wood but warns about the importance of understanding the material and the motivation for selecting it.

“We like it because it is natural. But that fact alone will ensure you get variation. The key is knowing how to specify the product to limit the impact of things like knotting in the boards.

“Every project has its own contextual boundary, and for us it is about understanding that selection process and understanding the limitations.”

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