Theatrical staging and set decoration were the inspirations for the fitout of Melbourne’s Lulamae boutique by Breathe Architecture.
In some ways, all architecture is a form of scenography, or theatre design. Buildings use visual devices, illusion and artifice to define our experience of space. The suspension of disbelief reaches delirious heights in shopping centres, in which shop after shop competes to define its own branded world. At the Lulamae fashion boutique in Melbourne Central, Breathe Architecture has made the analogy explicit. The vibe is created by two-dimensional cut-outs and fabric backdrops, framed by red curtains and a proscenium arch. “And, like with any production, all of this can be changed at any time,” says Breathe principal architect Jeremy McLeod.
The theme of “knowing artifice” runs through the concept of the fashion brand Lulamae itself. Lulamae is named after fictional character Lula Mae Barnes, the country girl who reinvents herself as glamorous sophisticate Holly Golightly, played by Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “The base building acts as a metaphor for the country girl,” explains McLeod, “and the transformation is achieved through the ‘dressing up’ of the base building.” The design acknowledges the temporary nature of such commercial transformations. The digitally printed plywood flats can be replaced and the backdrop can be swapped for a new digitally printed image.
The sources for the imagery range from tea towels to Czech puppet theatre. The decoration on the proscenium arch is adapted from an early-twentieth-century marionette stage from Prague. The 1950s Italian mountain village scene on the backdrop is reproduced from a tea towel the client had in her kitchen. Five hundred green paintbrushes create the “grass” at the feet of the window mannequins. The front window glazing is steel framed, 1920s style. These diverse ingredients combine to create an appropriate atmosphere and setting for the clothes and accessories on sale.
“Every girl at some point in her life wants to be on the stage,” says McLeod. A recycled Tasmanian oak floor has been battened to the concrete slab rather than glued, providing the acoustic and tactile experience of a real stage. Once inside, or centre stage, the artifice is revealed – the two-dimensional cut-out trees are not double-sided; instead the backs are unpainted and the wooden bracing and struts are exposed, allowing the trees to double as product shelving. The printed digital images are at low resolution, designed to look realistic only from the concourse. As you move inside and become the performer rather than the audience, their realism disappears. In a postmodern twist, the fakery is real fakery. The ropes holding up the fabric backdrop continue overhead to actual pulleys and counterweights on the opposite wall.
While Breathe brings a high level of environmental sustainability to every project, it is particularly appropriate for a retail fitout. Such spaces are constantly changing. The ply and hoop pine are from Australian plantation timber, the finish to the floor and the mild steel display racks is a natural wax, and the black paint is made from recycled engine oil by a company in Byron Bay, New South Wales. The materials have zero VOCs (do not give off toxic gases). Theatrical spotlighting is generated by low-energy LEDs. “Melbourne Central allows you to use twenty-two watts per square metre, and we are using 2.5 watts per square metre to light the space,” says McLeod.
The designers at Breathe Architecture are tired of being typecast as environmentally sustainable. They would rather be seen simply as good architects. McLeod sees its latest Lulamae project as an example to other retail designers. “You can get all this stuff locally, it’s doable and all really affordable,” he says. I say: encore!