Time Out Melbourne

Meet Phillip Schemnitz, the Melbourne architect responsible for our favourite drinking holes

It’s been a lavish gentlemen’s club, the home of Melbourne’s Communist Party headquarters, and the site of a police raid. Curtin House has experienced some fascinating incarnations. Today it features bars, restaurants, retail shops and a rooftop cinema. When architect Phillip Schemnitz came on board to renovate the building’s interior for his client and venue operator Camillo Ippoliti he considered the building’s chequered past to ensure the designs harked back to old Melbourne. Schemnitz is currently residing on Lake Maggiore, northwest of Milan where he’s soaking up the Italian way of life, and studying how city centres have evolved – and what makes them tick. Meanwhile, he’s meeting frequently with Ippoliti via Skype as they work on breathing new life into an old Irish pub.

Schemnitz attended Caulfield Grammar School, and later studied architecture in the late 1970s at RMIT University. In 1981 he travelled to New York for four years where he worked as an architect converting empty loft spaces into restaurants. This experience placed him in an ideal position to team up with Ippoliti on giving Curtin House a new life. Ippoliti and Schemnitz commenced work on Cookie, first floor of Curtin House, originally a gentlemen’s club in 2000. His designs “blurred the boundaries between what had been there in the past and what was there now.” The space was intended to be not only timeless, but revive the opulence of its former life. “We focused on making the space welcoming, convivial, rich and complex.”

The Toff in Town on level two of Curtin House was designed with a seedier Melbourne in mind. One hundred years ago, “Chinatown was the red light district of Melbourne, and it was notorious for its opium dens and prostitution,” Schemnitz says. The carriage, containing several private booths, placed in the centre of the restaurant references a sinister side of Melbourne life. Ippoliti and Schemnitz are currently working on renovating 62 Little Collins Street, formerly a Bridie O’Reilly’s pub. And long before that, it was a cavernous warehouse. The venue references the building’s former lives, Schemnitz says. “It would be silly to ignore the context of the building, and its light, scale and materials. But the only remnants of the Irish pub are the bars.” The currently nameless venue is expected to open its doors late 2013.

Schemnitz’s travel experience leads him to compare Melbourne to Milan, as both being “dark, introverted cities” with a similar climate and appreciation for good food, art, and social spaces. We do, however, have an Anglo Saxon-style drinking culture, Schemnitz says. “It’s completely different to the drinking culture in Italy. In Italy you walk into a restaurant and the first thing they ask you is ‘What would you like to eat?’ And the second is ‘What would you like to drink?’” A habit that is changing as more bars like Cookie and the Toff in Town set out to celebrate eating, as much as they do drinking.


1972 Graduates from Caulfield Grammar School

Late 1970s Studies architecture at RMIT University

1981 Travels to Chelsea, New York

1985 Returns to Melbourne

1998 Revolver featuring Schemnitz’s designs opens

2003 Cookie featuring Schemnitz’s designs opens

2007 The Toff in Town featuring Schemnitz’s designs opens

2012 Commences work on redesigning 62 Little Collins Street

Updated on 17 Aug 2014.

By Isabel Dunstan   |   Photos by Livia Bonazzi


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