SJB founding director Michael Bialek welcomes est inside his newly renovated Melbourne apartment.

Architect Michael Bialek and his wife Shirley, now empty-nesters, moved from Melbourne’s Toorak to an inner-city apartment to mark their next phase in life. Located inside the original Defence Department office tower, converted in 1998, the apartment has seen two iterations: the first in collaboration with SJB director Andrew Parr and a more recent renovation in collaboration with SJB director Ljiljana Gazevic. In this interview, Michael shares what appealed most about the space, how he worked with Andrew and Ljiljana, and the ideas he will take into future apartment designs. 

Your home is located within Melbourne’s original Defence Department office tower, converted into an apartment building in 1998. What drew you to the building? Did you immediately see its potential?

Michael Bialek: The Defence Department office tower was built in the 1970s and converted into an apartment building in 1998. We were drawn to this building due to its location – within one km of the CBD, overlooking the Shrine of Remembrance and the Kings Domain and within 100 metres of SJB’s studio at the time. The views towards the city skyline, the Botanical Gardens and Port Phillip Bay were the magnet for our attraction to the building. The potential for the building was evident – a slender tower with a small floor plate, large common areas, corner balconies and ceiling heights only available in older commercial buildings.

You decided to move from Melbourne’s Toorak to this inner-city apartment to mark your next phase of life. How did you work with colleagues Andrew Parr and Ljiljana Gazevic on the most recent renovation to make this move a reality?

Michael Bialek: I originally worked with Andrew Parr, who founded SJB’s first interior studio in the late 1990s, to design the apartment, which resulted in a floor plan that was very different from the standard layout. The open floor plan optimises the view from all rooms and allows long vistas within the apartment. The most recent renovations undertaken in collaboration with SJB director Ljiljana Gazevic and business partner Andrew were to the entry foyer and bathrooms. The original layout was retained, but joinery, finishes and fittings were upgraded to maintain the contemporary quality of the original design. Working with Andrew and Ljil for more than 25 years, it’s a full-circle moment to have them involved in this project.

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B&B Italia Melandra dining chairs by Antonio Citterio, custom Hans Hofmann dining table, table vase and bowls by Mud Australia, and Cassina high-back Ingram dining chair by Charles Mackintosh.

The apartment formerly housed the tower’s mechanical plant room, featuring the highest ceilings in the building and views of Melbourne’s skyline. How does your design work to accentuate the apartment’s most appealing existing features?

Michael Bialek: The volume of the apartment, specifically created by the 3.6m ceiling height, is further enhanced by the layout, which optimises external views by removing room-dividing walls wherever possible.

You’re well-versed in apartment living. How did you take key learnings from apartment design over the past two decades into your own home?

Michael Bialek: We kept the layout and finishes simple and let the views be the apartment’s ‘everchanging’ feature. Natural light and the morning sun entering the space provide so much visual interest.

In particular, can you talk about the use of ‘boxes’ in the open-plan layout?

Michael Bialek: The apartment is divided into living zones by full-height, double-sided storage units that conceal sliding room doors. These large-scale, sculptural storage units change the experience of the living spaces.

Are there any ideas you have experimented with in your own apartment that you hope to take into future projects?

Michael Bialek: We experimented with raised floor platforms to accentuate the sculptural character of the interior. The entry and ensuite bathroom floors use this technique to define different functions without the need for separation by walls.

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Custom Bauhaus-inspired rug by Halcyon Lake, Minotti Dubuet sofa by Rodolfo Dordoni, Minotti Monet low coffee table and ClassiCon adjustable table E 1027 by Eileen Gray.

Describe the material palette and how it reflects how you live in the apartment.

Michael Bialek: The material palette is both calm and confident. Darker wall colours are used for the internal circulation zones, whereas lighter colours are applied to the majority of walls, especially those abutting the façade glazing. Together with slender mirrors applied to ceiling recesses and wall junctions, the emphasis and focus are always on reinforcing the proximate and distant views available from the apartment.

Your home features a beautiful curation of art, objects and furniture. Did your collection change with your move?

Michael Bialek: Most of our collection of art, objects and furniture was retained and installed in the apartment – memories of our travels and previous homes are still precious. New, large-scale artworks were purchased to complement and reinforce the scale of the apartment living areas.

Can you share the story behind a piece that’s particularly special to you?

Michael Bialek: The dining room table has been in our possession for over 40 years, with only minor aesthetic improvements to the edge detailing and veneer finish. Originally built by an Austrian master craftsman, Hans Hoffman, for our second family home in Hawthorn East, the extendable table still functions as originally intended for family gatherings.

Now living in the St James Apartment, is there anything that has surprised you about how you use the apartment space?

Michael Bialek: No surprises – just enjoying the more relaxed, efficient use of the interior spaces compared to a suburban home. And the added pleasure of engaging with the view and the activities of the public realm outside.

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Segno bed by Cappellini and Minotti Villon cube by Rodolfo Dordoni.

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