The making of The Commons George Street, in conversation with DesignOffice


January 1, 2023


Influential by name, iconic by nature, George Street is home to some of the world’s most sought-after luxury brands and businesses, extending through the city’s most distinct precincts, from The Rocks all the way to Central Station.

Influential by name, iconic by nature, George Street is home to some of the world’s most sought-after luxury brands and businesses, extending through the city’s most distinct precincts, from The Rocks all the way to Central Station.

There are few streets in Australia quite as renowned as Sydney’s George Street.

The oldest street in Australia, walking down George is like taking a trip through history. On one hand there’s classic Georgian sandstone buildings. On the other, there’s grand Victorian buildings that have since been converted for modern-day use, such as Louis Vuitton, which features the original 19th century facade as a tribute to Sydney’s heritage.

You’re in good company with Louis Vuitton located next door. Image: Louis Vuitton

So, when the opportunity to secure a new site for The Commons at 388 George Street presented itself, it was a no brainer.

When determining which architect would be entrusted to turn this prime piece of real estate into what would eventually become a home away from home for 900 plus members of The Commons, one thing was for sure: their vision for the space had to be as inspiring as the street on which it overlooks.

Enter DesignOffice, award-winning architectural and interior design practice behind institutions Higher Ground, The Grosvenor Business Lounge, BYRDI, Palace Central Cinema and more.

Headed up by founding directors Mark Simpson and Damien Mulvihill, DesignOffice’s human-centred approach to design proved the perfect match for The Commons, whose spaces are built upon the very same principles.

Ahead of the opening of The Commons George Street later this year, we caught up with Mark and Damien to chat about their plans for the space, creative process and what members can expect from the ninth edition of The Commons.

Firstly, can you tell us about the vision for The Commons George Street?

George Street will be the flagship location for The Commons, in an iconic building right in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. We wanted to create an environment that feels like it is part of the building, which is connected across multiple levels through voids and a series of outdoor spaces, and infuse it with the best of everything that The Commons is and offers its members.

An elegant new stair is the heart of the space, tying together connected zones which support work and play, providing inspiring and supportive environments for members. The extensive glazing and connection to landscaped terraces informed the design response, using materials and colours to create unique experiences within a cohesive overall space.

How did the surrounding area and its reputation influence the design?

Through the extensive glazing and outdoor spaces, The Commons George Street connects with iconic brands and world-class buildings, both old and new. Set above George Street, it provides a sanctuary from the city that remains readily connected, with premium spaces and finishes that have the amenity and quality of a luxury hotel.

Can you tell us about the colour palette and textures chosen?

We wanted a palette that was rich and warm – with material and tonal depth – to respond to the fabric of the building and connect to the cityscape and outdoor planting.

A new stone flooring and a rich tinted oak form the base palette. This is built on with layers of saturated ‘inky’ colours, mixing olive green, navy and mustard with tan leather and stainless steel. Luxury moments of polished stainless steel, brass, marble and leather is offset with raw concrete and galvanised steel to imbue the spaces with an edgy yet indulgent aesthetic.

What about the furniture?

The collective suite of furniture mixes some of our favourites. It includes iconic classics such as the Magnus Olesen 8000 Series chair, Fritz Hansen Series 7 chair, a custom-made Mario Bellini Camaleonda Sofa and pieces from Artek and Apato, mixed with new designs like the Jiro Swivel Chair by Simon James (designed and made in New Zealand) and local pieces by nau, Dessein, ByDave, Ross Gardam and Ross Didier.

Each piece works to meet the needs of The Commons members through a combination of its aesthetic and functionality, resulting in a collection that is layered, nuanced and inspiring.

What are some of the key features of the space?

In order to create a full suite of spaces that meet diverse working needs, there are different zones that are more quiet or more social, as well as those which are a flexible hybrid.

For example, the Reception is devised as a hotel lobby, with spaces for all-day working, reading and relaxing. Adjacent is an outdoor garden – renamed The Forest – which features landscaping by The Commons Collingwood members Florian Wild and offers an external quiet space for reading, talks and stretch classes. On level one is another external area overlooking King Street, an activated Terrace for working, socialising and meeting, complete with a barbecue and bar for after-work drinks.

How did you incorporate human-centred design into the interiors and architecture of the space?

We approach all of our projects through a human-focused lens, aiming to create spaces which not only look great but are functional, enjoyable, uplifting and focused around the end-user.

At The Commons George Street, this manifests in a few areas in particular:

  • Lighting which creates visual comfort and illuminates the surfaces where it is needed
  • Planning which is efficient and encourages interaction and engagement
  • Touchpoints of natural and tactile materials which feel great in the hand
  • Fostering intuitive circulation across each floor and between them
  • Creation of pause points and moments of delight
  • Connection to outdoor spaces and fresh air

How do you want people to feel when they’re in the space?

We want people to feel supported and nurtured, both practically and emotionally. On one level, The Commons George Street should feel like returning to your favourite hotel – the place that makes you feel good and where everything works seamlessly to support what you need to do. The aim is that members and visitors feel comfortable, inspired and connected in the space.

What does your design process look like? From the first conversation to the final reveal?

We’re naturally inquisitive and ask a lot of questions. This involves briefing with the team at The Commons, finding out what works and what doesn’t, and unlocking the potential in new spaces and locations. We’re also constantly learning from our work, surroundings and travel. Successful coworking spaces are informed by hotel design, cafe design and office design, and we’re constantly asking questions about what works and why.

Once a functional brief is determined and we’ve created a concept, we work through the process of development and refinement to make sure that everything works and looks great. After construction drawings have been issued and works are on site, we really relish in being actively involved in the construction process, working with contractors and craftspeople to respond to the unexpected and help bring the spaces to life.

It’s a linear path from the initial meeting to the final project, but there are a lot of stages and people involved. Embracing this process and the collaboration it calls for are a key part of a successful project for us.

You’ve said in the past that you “love the problem-solving side of design”, did you run into any curve balls during the design process? How did you overcome them?

Creating intuitive connections is at the heart of creating a cohesive and dynamic environment where people can move around easily and connect with their coworkers and other members. In this project, circulation considerations included vertical dynamics over multiple levels.

However, the heritage fabric of the building has a structural grid and fire safety needs, which didn’t make this the easiest thing to achieve! The biggest challenge has been designing an elegant, open and inviting new stair which works within these constraints and still looks great. With a great connector and proactive consultant team, we’ve found a solution which will become one of the defining elements of The Commons George Street.

What role did sustainability play in the design process?

Being sustainable without necessarily looking sustainable was an important part of The Commons brief. In the aim to maintain the level of environmental consideration required by the base building, we drew on the concept of dematerialisation. Instead of adding ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ components to a project, dematerialisation principles guide you to use materials only when you need to and sparingly, thereby avoiding excess.

In The Commons George Street, we left off-form concrete walls and columns visible in the fit out, and in the open work and circulation areas there are no additional floor or ceiling finishes. Instead, concrete surfaces have been simply polished and acoustic treatments used only in areas where they were functionally required.

What about this project are you most excited about?

Experiencing it in the final weeks, onsite and as it becomes occupied is very exciting for us. When projects start approaching completion and the design thinking becomes real, spaces begin to take on their personalities and the emotional resonance of the design starts to become tangible.

We’re also going to be working there from time to time when we’re in Sydney and we love to test out our work first-hand and observe the way in which other people inhabit it.

The Commons George Street opened in May 2022. Find more information here.