Feature, Hospitality/Leisure

This Melbourne bar is lit by beer bottles

LEDs in beer bottles hang from a chandelier at Melbourne's General Assembly bar | Photo: William Watt

The General Assembly in Melbourne’s renovated South Wharf area is rapidly becoming a popular watering hole, boasting the full line-up of Matilda Bay craft beers – but it’s the lighting that creates the right atmosphere for a good brew.

Working with Six Degrees architects and lighting solutions consultants Light Project, the General Assembly’s lighting was designed to accommodate Melbourne’s cold dark winter nights and hot bright summers. And while energy saving is important, general manager Pierre van der Heyde says functionality and aesthetics are paramount in hospitality.

One major problem was the massive restrictions due to the building’s heritage listing. It started life as a wool shed in the 1800s, and although its latest function was as a hospitality venue, what was left was basically a plasterboard shell that had to be completely gutted.

 ‘We’re not allowed penetrations on the exterior for up and down lighting but we have tried adding a bit of warmth to the building,’ says van der Heyde.

As well as LEDs, the interior has exposed Edison lamps and many of the downlights are halogen to create the right atmospheric light. Wherever possible, it’s surfaces that are lit rather than open spaces. ‘In the bar there’s strip lighting at the back of the spirit shelves and menu board to achieve a washed light affect without having the exposed globes in your face,’ explains van der Heyde. While the dining area is lighter, the downlight spots are reduced unless they are directly over the table; van der Heyde points out the food needs to look good.

The newly opened kitchen has also become a focal point. ‘The lighting adds to the sense of theatre in the kitchen so the chefs are on display,’ says Michael Frazzetto, associate at Six Degrees architects.


‘We’ve tried to add a bit of warmth to the building,’ says manager Pierre van der Heyde

The jewel in the crown

The General Assembly’s pièce de résistance is the gothic style chandeliers which help create a more intimate atmosphere by lowering the ceilings. Inspired by the lighting in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, Frazzetto says the technique is used in many big churches to bring buildings down to a person level. These three chandeliers are made of circular frames with hanging lamps made from Carlton Cold beer bottles. The largest one is over 5m in diameter with around 40 suspended bottles.

‘The bottle light was great as it united disparate parts of the job. We wanted to subtly reference that the client was Carlton & United Breweries without the bar seeming too masculine or too much like a beer hall,’ Frazzetto says.

The bulbs in the chandelier are standard 12-volt bi-pin LEDs, but the lenses were customised by adding a yellow automotive primer paint to create a warmer glow. ‘The beer bottles were sandblasted on the inside to give an opaque effect; that way you can’t see the actual light inside,’ explains Remo Vallance, partner at GandV, who helped design and make the chandeliers.

Many drinkers don’t realise the lights are Carlton Cold bottles, but on closer inspection, it is the metal lids that give the game away. ‘People joke we’ve finally found a good use for Carlton Cold,’ says van der Heyde, and he says client feedback is good.


An evolving venue

The lighting scheme cost around A$25,000 excluding the chandeliers, however more is set to be spent.

Although the island bar runs the full length of the venue, the room can be sectioned off enabling five or six events to be running same time. Van der Hayde says there is an emerging crossover of space with varying lighting requirements. ‘A dinner for 40 people will have different lighting needs to a 300 cocktail reception with a presentation. At the same time, the general walk in bar area and restaurant will need to be functioning,’ he says.

‘The chandeliers are currently on one dimmer but they will soon have separate circuits and we need to give more light to the dining -focused areas,’ he says.