As creative as architecture and interior design may be, it’s still a profession defined by its constraints. For most designers, their work isn’t so much blue sky as it is meeting the ceiling of a client’s needs. But for DesignOffice’s Damien Mulvihill and Mark Simpson, that’s the pleasure of the discipline. “It’s not an arbitrary thing,” muses Simpson. “One of the things we really enjoy, is making what we do very specific to peoples’ briefs.”

The most recent challenge for Mulvihill and Simpson is Filter, Andrew Kelly’s new coffee and smørrebrød outlet in the CBD. The pair came on board to help convert what was once a slightly grubby King Street convenience store into a Scando-flavoured cafe.

Mulvihill and Simpson met in London more than a decade ago. They cemented their friendship while working for the acclaimed design firm, Universal. However, Simpson realised he’d had enough of living in Britain and moved to Australia. When Mulvihill eventually returned to Australia, Universal’s founders, Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby suggested (over a few bottles of wine between the four of them) that Mulvihill and Simpson establish a Melbourne outpost of the firm. “We had breakfast the next day and asked, Are we still doing this?” laughs Simpson. DesignOffice was born.

The project had particular appeal to the designers, who, after working in a larger firm, wanted to take things back to basics. “We’d both been getting more senior in bigger practices, and getting less and less involved on site and in the detailed stuff that we really like doing,” says Simpson. “Just being in charge of your own thing is really quite nice.”

The studio works because Simpson and Mulvihill are unusually like-minded. They’re clearly genuine friends – which can’t always be said for business partners – but they also share an ethos for both practice and design. They describe it as the, “Aesthetic equivalent to finishing each other’s sentences.” “It’s quite freaky,” says Mulvihill. “We always choose the same thing. That makes it very easy to work with one another.”

The pair describe a “graphic clarity and simplicity” about their style, with an interest in counterintuitive use of colour. However, they’re quick to insist that a shared sensibility doesn’t equate to a single style. “We don’t have a house style and we don’t impose a certain style. But we’ll always bring the principles of quality design,” says Mulvihill. “The aesthetic is responsive to the brand or the business drivers or the needs of the client.”

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For Filter, the process involved close consultation with Kelly about not only the cafe’s concept, but about the way he expects customers to use the space. They wanted to break the traditional model of having people walk up to a counter at the back of the store, but without making the process uncomfortable or awkward. The studio put together diagrams of how 12 different types of customers were likely to use the space in order to make serving them more intuitive. “We spent the first month with Andrew going through how he was serving customers,” explains Simpson.

DesignOffice is remarkably old-fashioned in its process. Instead of relying solely on CAD wireframes and digital renders, Mulvihill and Simpson mock up cardboard models, often in 1:1 scale. “We often sit down with a cardboard box and a scalpel. It’s not pretty, but it’s just about understanding space,” says Simpson.

Mulvihill believes that the current reliance on photo-realistic renders is potentially damaging, encouraging designers to work towards a glamorous render. “They become the thing that everyone designs to, rather than just the result of the design. That’s the wrong way around,” he says. “When you’re making something physically, you have to think about it differently. You have to think about how a builder would build it. You think about the opportunities of how things come together.”

DesignOffice also developed an innovative way for Filter to take its fit-out with them wherever they go. “Rather than building things into the walls, they’re very freestanding. It’s just a perfect piece that’s brought in and placed, and nothing touches the wall,” explains Mulvihill. “It was an aesthetic choice, but it was also cheaper. Whatever you’re going to spend the money on can be picked up and taken somewhere else.”

The partners were also focused on keeping the site simple. Although smørrebrød gives Filter a Scandinavian influence, Mulvihill and Simpson were conscious of not turning the cafe into a Nordic Disneyland. “We’re using soft timber stains in greens and powder blues. There’s a blond timber, and that’s probably as Danish as it gets,” says Simpson.

Actually, DesignOffice’s reticence to over-embellish a space might be the perfect expression of the Scandinavian aesthetic. Mulvihill explains: “It’s about knowing when not to design, when to pull back and let the product be the thing.”

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