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RECLAIMING THE OLDEN WAYS

New can be beautiful, but it will always be a fresh start, a blank page in the book of time, a back turned on the memories of who and what came before. But amongst us there are some who aren’t so willing to let go of the past, of tradition, of things learned from our forebears, and those before them. And they spend their days reclaiming the olden ways, and paying tribute to the past.

Tye Rainoldi and Jamie Pope of Western Construction Group, and Ara Salamone of AJCD are making their story by preserving others. Making aesthetically elegant use of recycled and reclaimed materials, this union of creative passion between two builders and a graduate of architecture has already gifted Perth with some of its most innovative and unique buildings and fit-outs, and there are more on the way.

I meet with them at the Gordon Street Garage, one of Tye’s most successful and eye-catching projects to date. Nestled on a small street in West Perth, the coffee bar and café has made a name for itself with its in-house roasted coffee, famed kitchen and unique ambience unlike any other in the city.

For this little space on Gordon Street was once a garage where generations of mechanics kept the motor cars of Perth in working order until one day the work stopped, swallowed up by the changing of the times. For years, the building sat empty, layers of dust settling on the timber, covering the rust on the iron and the grime on the oily washroom floor. But no longer, thanks to vision, hope and creative minds free of limitations.

I ask Tye about how this place came to be. He smiles, eyes flicking around to the raw timber beams, the improvised light fittings, and the humble attractiveness of the place. I let him have a moment of reverie, and then brought back to the now by our coffees arriving, he tells me its story.

Tye was working for another builder at the time that the Gordon Street Garage began its transformation from dilapidation to reclaimed ingenuity. A set of plans existed, but the longer the job went on the more evident it became that they weren’t going to work. The architect was interstate and solutions to unforeseen problems were slow and difficult to work with, until Tye and his team were given what they needed from owner Nic Trimboli: a little bit of freedom. ‘Don’t overthink things, we were told. So we created it as we went’.

This approach didn’t please all, but it was perfect for Tye. ‘I was so excited every morning that I worked here,’ he says. ‘Sometimes things don’t go to plan, but you’ve got to overcome that. People would get so fed up and angry because the situation wasn’t perfect. But that was exactly it, that was the point of the place: not to be perfect. And look at it now, it’s unbelievable.’

And Tye is right. Much of the Gordon Street Garage’s fame and charm comes from its unique and dissonant nature: things are just not where you’d expect them to be. Floorboards clad walls. Lights hang unexpectedly. Timber is raw and untreated. Steel girders are left exposed and unfinished, and industrial-like, they loom as they welcome. Customers sit in old bus seats, but don’t feel like going anywhere in a hurry. Tye’s right, you need to see it to believe it.

The Gordon Street Garage, and all like it, are the perfect example of the reclamation style of building that Tye and Jamie love and implement, where art and feeling is given a role in the building process, and the rules matter a little less than the finished product. It’s a freer way of life, and I suspect that the unpredictability of it all intoxicates them. There’s no certainty in the process, no guarantee that a finished product will be the intended colour, let alone form, and that’s exactly how they want it.

‘We might find a piece of timber and I won’t know what it will look like until we machine it,’ Tye says. ‘That randomness, that surprise, it’s satisfying. A lot of the stuff that we do is raw, and you don’t get that finish from new materials, you don’t get that aged texture. For me, that sets our work apart from the rest. To get that kind of material that has been used by so many others, it’s beautiful. Something has been sitting on this flooring for hundreds of years – people have been staring at it, walking on it, working on it, living on it. The history in that is important, and shouldn’t be so easily thrown away. Like the floor up here. For sixty years it had oil and diesel spilled all over it, staining it, changing it. Once it was cleaned up, sanded and finished that colour is completely unique and you’ll never see it anywhere else.’

‘It’s about having something raw and the feeling of seeing what it looks like once we’ve finished. It’s about that process. Sometimes we’ll do a job but the perfect material that we end up finding doesn’t work how we’ve planned, so we just make do. And sometimes it’s in this process that the hidden details, the memories, the imperfections come out and end up being more amazing than we’d planned. And if it doesn’t turn out exactly how I want it to that’s okay, because it’s about the process, it’s about how that finished product looks, and what’s happened to make it that way.’

And it’s a process that is attracting a lot of attention. ‘We don’t advertise,’ Ara says. ‘People hear about us, see our work, and come to us for a particular style or design.’ Recent projects include a barber, an inner-city residence, a retail fit-out, and many more.

Just completed was the fit out for a FRANKii retail store in the most unlikely of places: a suburban Perth shopping centre. Raw timber interweaves overhead, in places superfluously artistic yet subtly so. Floorboards are mismatched and damaged, paint flakes and steel is left bare and crude. Nothing is neat, yet everything is exactly as it should be.

Leederville’s Hunter Store, too, was transposed by melding of creativivity and reclamation of history and tradition. Exising heritage beams and windows that had been hidden for years were exposed during the base build works, and now sit highlighted with fresh paint, juxtaposed against the sleek minimalist interior.

It doesn’t take me long to realise that Ara, Tye and Jamie are doing exactly what they should be, at least at this moment. I get the feeling that family has a lot to do with this. Perhaps for Tye his passion grew from a childhood spent watching an Italian grandfather reuse bricks to save a little money, and weekends filled with carpenters and building sites, all under the watchful eye of a builder father and a supportive mother. Resources were limited, so home projects were made from salvaged timber, scavenged metals, and whatever else he could repurpose. School was a necessary rite of passage, but the creative passion for timber and building was nurtured. The apprenticeship that followed was certain, almost a matter of fact.

For Ara, things weren’t too different. Given that her great grandfather and grandfather were master builders, and her father a builder, master draftsman and inventor, designing was in the blood. She started her architecture career as a child, ghosting her father around building sites, a pencil always in one hand, and anything made of paper would be covered in sketches. Her tutelage began at this early age too.

‘I was 7 or 8 years old, drawing plans,’ Ara says. ‘I thought I had designed the best plan ever. I showed my dad, and I said it’s the best plan ever. He looked at it and asked where the north point was, and the scale. Too some this might sound harsh, but if it wasn’t for the blood, sweat and tears of him being so hard in a good way educating and critiquing me to be better, I would never had this vision or these skills.’ And she smiles and looks around. ‘We are lucky to have had this upbringing.’

High school was a challenge, but she endured and scraped through all subjects. She didn’t take her Tertiary Entrance Exams, instead using raw talent to further her education. She approached Curtin University with her design portfolio, and a look was all that was needed to ensure her admission. A few years later, she graduated with honours, and followed it up with a Masters at the University of Western Australia, all whilst running her first business in design.

‘We might have thought it was hard at times, but it was worth it,’ Tye says. ‘And now we still work hard, even harder, and we can be proud of it. And in our experience it’s rare to find people like that, with that work ethic. Especially in Western Australia with the mining boom, the old money, the fast new money, that kind of work ethic is far from the norm.’

‘But for us reward is the satisfaction,’ Tye says. ‘It’s in the passion. There’s a bed and a shower and a kitchen in the office. Sometimes we don’t go home. It’s work, work, sleep, work.’ And even if he does make it home after a day on the job, sleep isn’t a certainty. ‘Going to bed at night, I’ll be laying there thinking and something will come to me and that’s it. Forget about sleep, I’ll be in the office drawing, researching, whatever.’

And he’s not the only one. ‘My fiancé is used to me waking up in the middle of the night,’ Ara says. ‘Turning all the lights on at 4 o’clock in the morning with paper everywhere, sketching things I’ve been thinking about. He doesn’t even say anything anymore, he just rolls over, puts a blanket over his head and thinks ‘she’s crazy, she’s drawing, just let her go.’

I wonder if he thinks it is also a little crazy to spend her down time wandering between junk piles, sifting through rubble and piling a shed with odds and ends. But the finding of the forgotten timber, the junk, those invaluable resources is where the reclaiming process starts. ‘Often we will find something that will begin to shape the overall design,’ Ara says. ‘When you’re working with reclaimed things and going to scrap yards, scrambling around for hours finding materials, strapping them to the back of the ute, it’s pretty full on. But then the material that you find starts to shape and define the fit out, the building, whatever. It’s exciting.’

At some level, it’s all a gamble. Something might look perfect in a scrapyard but be impossible to work with on site, and settle down with the dust in Tye’s shed waiting for its day. And some finds are just perfect, as soon as they’re seen their next destination is certain. ‘We found these industrial sliding doors at this scrapyard in Bullsbrook,’ Tye says. ‘As soon as we both saw them, we knew where they were going.’

And it’s finds like this where the hard work really does pay off, where a rare piece is taken home for themselves. For Ara it was an historic concrete laundry trough. ‘This story started with my discovery of a similar trough at a salvage yard that I couldn’t have as it had been sold already. None of my negotiating or cajoling would convince the salvage yard owner to sell it to me, so I sent my husband and father-in-law on a hunting mission to find another one.

‘We scoured a hit-list of old North Perth houses near to our property, knocking on doors and making offers to no avail. Eventually we stopped by an abandoned, derelict house which was ready for demolition. We tried in vain to contact the listed demolition company to make an offer to purchase the trough, but couldn’t get through. So we took a bit of a risk and took the trough, leaving a note with contact details in case someone wanted to discuss it further.’

But nobody ever called, and the next day when Ara drove past the property the house had been demolished. The old home was gone, along with all its history, except for that concrete trough. ‘It’s an historic piece,’ Ara says. ‘There’s an original stamp showing that it was made at a factory on Beaufort Street. We’re trying to find out more information on the era and origin of the piece. We feel that it’s important and special to give this treasure a new lease on life in the same area it was produced.’ And that new life is the centrepiece of Ara’s kitchen.

‘We’ve gone on some crazy trips finding stuff,’ she says. ‘Searching in derelict and demolished houses, peering into industrial bins and sifting through rubble. We’ve found gems, things that you would never see and could never buy. These are the lengths we will go to, and they’re for other people. You have to be a certain type of person, have a passion for what you do to want to spend your weekends scavenging through old houses in search of that perfect find.’

Her passion is clear. It’s a passion for design, for shaping a structure, for gifting liveable beauty and art for generations to come. And it’s infectious. Whilst many of us never really know why it is that we do what we do, Ara has her answer. ‘I live and dream architecture,’ she says. ‘It’s an obsession. It’s me. It’s an extension of me.’

For Tye, the existential question of self-motivation is easily answered too. ‘It’s my passion,’ he says. I’ve never felt more at home than working with timber. I like the hard work and the long days. I like having sore hands. When I make something and then I have to hand it over, I hate doing it, but it’s so satisfying. You spend so many hours working a piece of wood, changing it, giving it new life, and then you have to give it away after spending all that time on it. It’s weirdly satisfying, that feeling. And I know that Jamie feels the same way. It’s a kind of satisfaction, an accomplishment. It’s why we put in the long days, the hard work. Others might be happy with the 9-5, the office job, the standard grind. But I’m not. They don’t get up at 3am when an idea wakes them from their sleep.’

‘I want to be different. I want to leave imperfections there because there’s beauty in them, and that’s what I want to make. I want to create things that will outlast me. And I know we can do it. I’m using things that are a hundred years older than I am now, and that, I think, is what’s most amazing about what we do.’