2013 Melbourne Design Awards

The School of Life Pop Up Space [DRAFT]



Project Overview

Built with the sweat and muscle of 40 volunteers and a meagre budget, the School of Life Australia (TSOL) Pop Up Space in Collingwood transformed a neglected warehouse shell and carpark into a thriving community hub. The first international offshoot of Alain de Botton’s meaning-of-life philosophical hub, the popular School of Life was installed for 10 weeks from January-March 2013 and featured a new café, bookshop, workshop and ‘bibliotherapy’ space for reading and reflection.

The project demonstrates a transformative, collaborative design process that brought together design ideas from volunteers, the community, designers and the client. Using almost exclusively repurposed materials, the Pop Up created a simple, bright and cheerful aesthetic.

The outcome demonstrates what is possible when communities come together to create positive change – a new community hub built out of virtually nothing. Several visitors remarked that the space had “a life of its own”, and had something “unquantifiable - something the volunteers had bought to the space”. Based on the Pop Ups success which supported a sold-out workshop program, TSOL is now sourcing a permanent location.

Coverage of the project:
The Australian Feature: http://tiny.cc/r2930w
Australian Design Review: http://tiny.cc/13930w
The Age: http://tiny.cc/u7930w

Project Commissioner

Small Giants

Project Creator

CoDesign Studio Limited


Niki Madabhushi - Lead Project Volunteer, CoDesign Studio
Emily McCrae - Project Volunteer, CoDesign Studio
Julian Legg - Project Volunteer, CoDesign Studio

Sara Tiefenbrun - Project Director, The School of Life (London)
Kaj Lofgren - Director of Strategy, Small Giants

Project Brief

Only months before the run down warehouse was scattered with broken bottles, needle sharps and a mountain of aging furniture. CoDesign’s brief was to bring the site to life - to create a vibrant temporary space that would accommodate the diverse needs of TSOL’s program, but also to reclaim the assets of this heritage site for the Melbourne community – and all for a materials budget of less than $6500.

Embracing the principles of everyday philosophy that TSOL promotes to help people live more meaningful lives, CoDesign’s approach sought to achieve simultaneously neighbourhood revitalisation and community empowerment.

The resulting outcome demonstrated:
• Radical restructure of a warehouse into a colourful, flexible and light filled interior space with an adjacent carpark-turned-outdoor café;
• A quintessentially local response, with design ideas coming from the community and volunteers, as well as professional designers.
• Increased community understanding of the importance of volunteering and neighbourhood activation
• That lack of resources is never an excuse not to act.

Project Need

The School of Life Australia demonstrates a radically new approach to design. Rather than a traditional expert-led approach where finished plans are established before the project begins, TSOL project embodied an open, bottom-up design process where volunteers, the local community and stakeholders were invited to contribute ideas. The process was carefully facilitated by CoDesign Studio, so that the outcome created a useful space that was genuinely community oriented.

Here are a few stories from the experience:

The Volunteer
“CoDesign - through the project management team - encouraged everyone to contribute in terms of ideas and solutions...” Project Volunteer

The Client
“[The project] has introduced me to new methods of design, [and] expanded the reach of our project from day 1…lots of local community members have come through and…the site has been brought to life!” Kaj Lofgren, Director of Strategy, Small Giants.

Design Challenge

Budget: Working on a shoestring budget, the project demonstrated immense innovation in use of materials. With human capital the Pop Up’s greatest asset the team was put to work sourcing, transporting, building or modifying found, borrowed, and recycled materials. The outcome is an elegant compilation of colourful, meaningful spaces.

Site: With only one week before commencing the radical restructure, we received a heart stopping call. The site had been torched. With such a modest budget we feared the project was doomed. In response the team banded together more strongly to pull off a massive site revitalision.

Volunteers: Over 40 volunteers, most previously unskilled in construction, contributed to TSOL. This meant that the aesthetic carries with it the fingerprints of dozens of individuals, and not just a lead designer.


The School of Life demonstrates a profoundly local response. Over 90% of materials were sourced from within 100km of the site – mostly by the project team themselves, and 60% of materials were recycled,. Adding to this was the design process that prioritised existing features in the site and building, massively reducing the need for new materials.

Beyond its impressive environmental credentials, one of the major outcomes of the project was building social capital, with volunteers and community members building many new relationships and being empowered to take on sustainability challenges. Equally, the sold-out workshop program supported by the innovative pop up space challenged people from all over Melbourne to contribute to making their lives, their neighbourhood and their city more meaningful.

This award celebrates innovative and creative design for a temporary building or interior. Consideration given to materials, fixtures, finishes, signage and traffic flow. 

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