Fresh from a meeting in New York – which they wisely extended into a holiday to Palm Springs, LA and Mexico – Caroline Choker and Vince Alafaci are seated facing me in the newly opened Grounds of the City, every chair, lick of paint and light source that surrounds us having been carefully selected, commissioned and dreamed up by their collaboration and meticulous shared eye.
A decade before the couple hatched Sydney-based design firm Acme & Co, Caroline held a solo practice in interiors, and Vince was working as a registered architect. After meeting through a mutual friend, the two combined their disciplines into a studio that’s now five years old, and one they have deliberately kept on the smaller side (comprising just five employees), despite growing interest in their work. Their roll of design awards and shortlists is exhaustive, and telling.
Living and working together appear to suit this down-to-earth duo. “We’re constantly teaching each other,” says Caroline. “Initially, when we joined, it was like we were stepping on each other’s toes or we were trying to feel each other out. It was like we were dancing; ‘does this work?’ kind of thing.”
To the layman, interior design and architecture might seem one and the same, yet each requires a distinct ideology, say the couple. Architecture considers the macro, the external, while interior design zooms in on the micro; the experience of a human entering a space and moving around in it. To create exceptional venues, both must be painstakingly considered.
“For us, the disciplines are interconnected. What we’ve moved into is really about the psychology of space, so analysing that from the external and going to the internal,” says Caroline. “Even with the staff that we have, we’re always training them. In our office, it’s not like, ‘This is your role, that’s my role’. Everything’s on the table.”
What’s most striking as the two go on, occasionally echoing each other’s thoughts, is that rarely have I questioned why certain restaurants, rooms or more generally spaces, are a joy to be in. The answer lies in people like Caroline and Vince, who spend weeks concepting, prototyping in plywood, agonising over how to custom-build parts that don’t yet exist, and literally thousands of hours’ worth of problem solving.
“That’s what we pride ourselves on; not so much the problem solving, but workshopping new ways or investigating how we can be different and approach things with all our builders, our joiners, our industrial designers. We’re constantly trying to do things,” shares Caroline.
Their heightened understanding of each other is born of similar histories. “We both come from families,” starts Caroline, “who were involved in building,” concludes Vince. Their business-minded fathers had a great impact on the two. “It’s amazing the influence that your parents have on you in the journey that you take. My dad was always about ‘Go and get it yourself; go and create what you want’,” shares Vince. “When I was working for somebody else, he was always pushing me to do other things. But as soon as the day I registered [as an architect], he basically threw a project at me and said, ‘That’s yours. Go and do it.’ I think in both upbringings, they always instilled a confidence.”
Caroline’s paternal influence was similarly encouraging (and endearing). “My dad was like, ‘Anything is possible, you can do anything, anything you want’. It just gave us a fearless approach to just try; the fundamentals of just having a go,” she says.
On this Wednesday morning, the Grounds of the City is bustling. There is no wait for our table, but those who arrive just after aren’t so lucky. I ask the two if it’s heartbreaking to think that most patrons likely don’t recognise the recycled French oak tables they’re leaning upon, the two and a half years of planning and building, that went into the space (Caroline’s brother, Alexandria Ramzey Choker, is founder and owner of both this venue and the Grounds of Alexandria). “Our joy is watching people in the space. We sit up at the bar and just watch people interact,” says Vince. “The joy at the end is just seeing people; I guess that’s the drug,” offers Caroline. “It calms all the pain that we went through. After it opens, you don’t remember all the frustrating little nitty gritties.” At this, the two of them look over at the unassuming diners with quiet pleasure. Their hard work, acute attention to detail, their envisioning was all for this.
“Unless you haven’t noticed, we’re perfectionists,” says Vince. I look around and concur, asking whether they have reached that Oprah-level position of only taking on projects they really want to do. “Yes, we can do that,” admits Caroline. “For us, [the project] really needs to resonate. We need to believe. The client needs to have their own value and their own vision, and they need to be really passionate about what that is.”