Sydney designer Jason Mowen embraced a heritage building’s enormous dimensions, turning it into a grand, Italian-inspired eating experience. By Kerryn Ramsey

Originally a tyre factory, the building in Sydney’s Rushcutters Bay is now Bar Machiavelli, Sydney’s cathedral to pasta. The heritage site is an enormous space with raw brick walls and a soaring ceiling. Others had tried to diminish the size and make the eating experience cosy, but designer Jason Mowen took a different approach.

“The first time I saw the building, I had a vision of how Bar Machiavelli would look,” says Mowen. “The ceiling height was like a dream. The previous restaurant owners seemed afraid of the scale but I thought it was extraordinary.”

Mowen drew inspiration from owner Paola Toppi’s Italian heritage and her family’s long association with Italian food. Toppi wanted Bar Machiavelli to be warm and sophisticated while Mowen wished to embrace the cavernous space. The design evolved until both owner and designer achieved exactly what they envisaged.

“For inspiration, I looked to ancient Rome, Renaissance Florence and 20th-century Italian film,” says Mowen. “I also looked to the massive Terence Conran restaurants that opened throughout London in the late 1990s. Currently, people seem obsessed with going out for a meal and feeling like they’re in someone’s home. Bar Machiavelli is not like that—it’s about grandeur and theatre and a sense of occasion.”

One of the most striking elements of Bar Machiavelli are the over-sized images of celebrities projected onto the brick walls. Toppi and husband Neil Cunningham drew inspiration from the light installations of Vivid Sydney. The constantly changing and eclectic mix includes Sophia Loren, Dean Martin, Leonardo DiCaprio, The Beatles and James Dean. “The infinite flexibility afforded by the ever-changing projected images means that no two nights will ever be the same at Bar Machiavelli,” says Mowen.

Rich colour and low lighting adds to the drama of the space while floor lamps help humanise the enormous ceiling height. A mural by Robert Doble references the Tyrian purple robes worn by the Roman emperors. The rich red of the leather banquette is a nod to the Renaissance era while also being an inviting colour for night-time dining. The bar, fitted around pre-existing structures, looks like a glowing sculpture.

“I wanted the bar to be slightly at odds with the cavernous, industrial space,” says Mowen. “We worked with Resene Paints and paired a brass countertop with two-pack metallic painted joinery.”

There is a gentle flow throughout the restaurant with no real demarcation between areas. Mowen deferred to Toppi’s experience and positioned waiters’ stations wherever she suggested. Along with the custom floor lamps is a bespoke octagonal centre table inspired by the Diego Giacometti table in Hubert de Givenchy’s country house. The space is moody yet welcoming, exciting yet restrained.

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