“The first time I walked into the space that is now Noni, it was a jazz bar,” says Design Architect Theo Cachia, recalling many an evening spent listening to local bands at Django, as it was formerly known. Some time later, his reaction, upon his first visit on-site for it as a project, was markedly different. “It was a bit of a rude awakening,” he admits, recalling that the makeshift conversion wasn’t ideal. “All of the original masonry walls were covered with gypsum boards and painted red,” he explains, and as with any building of a certain age, more discoveries were in store when works began.
“As we started our intervention, we discovered several levels of tiles buried under the existing floor level. There’s also a wood-fired oven which is original to the place and which was still visible, but because of the extra layer of tiles, some of its openings were jammed,” he recalls. Indeed, prior to its days (or rather, nights) as a jazz bar, the space was originally a well-known bakery and confectionery – hence the sign advertising Xmun Borg & Sons, still attached to the façade.
“It was nice discovering the layers of history, though unfortunately, not everything we discovered could be salvaged. In the main area for example, we found small hexagonal cement tiles which had two or three layers of tiles installed on top of them, so they were beyond repair. Still, in order to give them a bit of a nod, we decided to use traditional cement tiles, some of them with hexagonal patterns,” he continues.
Walking me through the space, Theo explains that now, as you enter the restaurant, you’re met with a welcome bar at ground level, which leads on to a small dining area and a staircase heading down into the main dining room. Speaking of this area, Theo reveals that the double height stairwell where the original staircase is located was heavily modified over time. When the architects looked at older plans and permits, they found that it contained necessary mezzanine levels for a very long time so they dismantled the makeshift one found and put an upgraded one in, taking the space itself into consideration. “Originally it was across the whole area, and in our intervention, we left some parts open so that people could still experience the double height space,” he maintains.
As you walk down the staircase, you’re met with a snapshot of the kitchen beyond, before making your way down to the main dining area through what used to be an awkward passageway beneath the stone staircase. “We didn’t want to remove this completely, so we did what I consider to be a highlight of this project,” Theo smiles, referring to a fantastic custom furniture piece moulded out of arching timber sections. “I really like the way we used the space underneath the staircase – an area which most people automatically relegate to storage,” he continues. While they did still manage to get some storage out of it, the talented team of architects also succeeded in making the entrance into the culmination of the restaurant – the dining room – a bit more interesting.
The project kicked off with several meetings with the client, Chef Jonathan Brincat – after which the restaurant is named – and investors. The architect notes that the team was left quite free to execute their vision of the space, adding that the clients wanted to keep a classic feel, so the only initial resistance was when it came to introducing contemporary elements, although he feels they married the two well.
“Most of the outlets in Valletta really want to drive the ‘authentic’ point home, but then proceed to design strictly traditional interiors. Noni is authentic because it’s also of its time. We still kept a bit of a vintage feel, but certain elements such as the wooden panelling are very minimalist and almost modern,” he says.
Works on site took mere months, from gutting to finishes, and on to custom steelwork by David Attard Ironworks and furniture, for which the team at ARCHI+ commissioned Fino, who used an Italian team to bring the designers’ vision to life. Speaking of the primary materials and finishes used throughout the space, Theo explains that a stained oak finish was chosen for all the timber, as well as a green sprayed finish inspired by the original sign and main door, and black sprayed steel. I point out that it’s quite a masculine palette, to which he agrees, adding that the curves and soft lines balance it out somewhat. Another counter to the masculine element are the pastel-toned Maltese tiles used for the dining room.
Moving on to Theo’s own pièce de résistance, he recalls that originally, the whole area beneath the stairs was higher up, so the architects excavated down and added contemporary stairs, using the same black marble on top – a black pietra lavica – to cover the threads of the original staircase.
“We then came up with the geometry of the new walkway in 3D, and sliced it into different sections which were fused together. In the last panel we included a door, from which the area beneath the staircase can be accessed, and which is used as storage. Finally, an inlet integrated into the wood serves as a waiter’s station.”
Another interesting element stems from the original bakery sign on the façade, which was itself restored and given a new lease on life. “The sign is a scheduled sign, so it was important to keep it. We first took it to the restorer, and overlapped it with a piece of glass sporting Noni’s logo in line type,” he says.
And with Theo’s personal interest in typography, the sign’s influence can also be felt indoors, by way of a playful typographic mural adorning an interior wall. “I always wanted to play around with the beautiful signs of Valletta, so I traced the 3D effect of the original sign, and enlisted Starcross Project, a company associated with Bloom, who did the branding for Noni, to paint a mural I created using the type over the tiled wall above the stairs. It was also broken down in such a way so as to spell out ‘noni’ vertically,” he adds.
Asked how he’d describe the finished design of the eatery, Theo explains that the design style takes a lot from the industrial modern eatery, albeit softened by curved edges, wood and pastel tiles, which give a nod to its history as a confectionery too. “I guess you could call it industrial lite,” he smiles.
And ARCHI+’s particular brand of industrial lite seems to have gone down well – so much so that Noni earned them the Commercial Interior Category within the recent Malta Architect Awards – a doubly great feat, considering it was also the most crowded category of the night, with 15 nominated projects. Expressing gratitude for the recognition, Theo maintains, “as everyone knows, Valletta is currently a hotbed of high-end development. Unfortunately, despite the years of heritage and craft inherently present in a lot of buildings in Valletta, not every intervention is a completely positive one. We are happy and honoured that although our site was relatively unassuming and compact, we were still recognised for the time and attention to detail we gave this project” – and judging by the results, they certainly show through.
This article originally appeared in The Commercial Courier