The Oxford Hotel:
124 Oxford St, Sydney
Story: Lucie Robson
From its spot on the corner looking over Taylor Square, The Oxford Hotel sees all the action in this colourful part of Sydney.
Now the strip is changing and no matter how you feel about the Sydney lockouts, which restrict opening and service times in the inner-city, it’s clear that they present a challenge to venues that once relied on late-night traffic and committed drinkers.
The Oxford Hotel’s ground-level Oxford Bar now has a new look, and it’s now more of a café or small bar than a rowdy party pub. Principal of Swerve Design Stefan Elliott says that adapting to the new environment provides a chance for thoughtful design to turn lemons into lemonade.
“We all felt that a bright, happy, ‘Stuff ‘em all’-style shot in the arm was needed to bring life back to this landmark hotel,” Elliott explains. “The Oxford Bar is now all about food and wine, not the old bulk beer and late night shots. Quality over quantity; café/bar, rather than beer barn.”
This is expressed with a wine wall straddling the smoking terrace and entry foyer and a coffee machine in the bar, as well as new seating to welcome more diners. To move the feel of the interior away from pub and towards small bar, the team removed existing plasma screens. “A food-friendly focus drove the finishes selections, joinery and furniture,” Elliott says. “All tables were sized up to accommodate plates and sides, booths were designed in the style of an American diner, chairs were chosen for comfort and a café vibe.” Wine sales are up, Elliott explains, and the kitchen is busy.
Bright colours and warm lighting entice passers-by from the street. The interior is a pleasing jumble of contrasting shades, patterns and textures, with an eye-catching macrame creation on the far wall and quirky painted light fittings adorned with fanning ‘legs’. It’s a bit like visiting the new apartment of a well-travelled friend.
“Our retro-influenced décor — like the roller-pattern wallpaper — is a blast from the past for our (Gen X and older) customers who grew up with these sorts of patterns,” Elliott explains. “It’s familiar and welcoming, like Gran’s cooking. But we’ve souped it up all new with contemporary production techniques. It’s all digitally printed. And the macrame wall, clearly a ’70s throwback, was hand-dyed by local artist, Melissa Carey in daring fluoro orange.”
Elliott describes the look as one that evokes a classic holiday postcard or a sitcom TV set. “We want people to be drawn in from the street by all the colour and life and feel comfortable to be themselves, whoever they may be,” he says.
The smokers’ terrace facing Oxford St is particularly unique, its glass walls covered with a bright green scene from European mountains somewhere. “You feel like you’ve stepped out onto the mountain for a quick gasper,” he says. “It’s actually a pay-out of the Salem/Alpine cigarette commercials of the 80’s, where the smokers themselves are in the ad. And it makes a fab stained glass window effect from the inside. Security can see who’s there, but the smokers are not part of the main room anymore, but an animated artwork beyond.”
The popular event spaces have been kept as they were. Directly above Oxford Bar is cabaret room Gingers, and premium function space Polo Lounge is above that. In the basement is nightclub room Underground. Swerve’s job was to draw more visitors to the party rooms through a new and attractive ground floor.
Elliott says that Swerve were given free rein to design something entirely new, to please valued guests in a unique, and beloved location. “Our client needs to be congratulated for taking the leap of faith to transform this much loved landmark hotel with a wholly new offer and unique approach,” he says. “No cookie-cutter “let’s make it look like this or that bar” direction was ever given. It was a blank slate given to us to do whatever we felt was going to fly.”
As debate around the lockouts intensifies, other venues looking for a positive spin — or just a way to survive — may be wise to follow The Oxford Hotel’s lead.
Swerve engaged the brand strategy services of David Tarr from TrueBrand, who Elliott says built a narrative around the tagline “Progressively Cosmopolitan”, and focused on the venue’s place as a welcoming third space between work and home.
“And all done with as much tongue and cheek as we could get away with,” Elliott says.