Enhancing the Reading Room

Behind the scenes

The Mitchell Library Reading Room, before
The Mitchell Library Reading Room (before)
Generations of students and scholars have entered this grand hushed interior — now known as the Mitchell Library Reading Room — with a sense of awe. Thanks to its sheer scale, encircling galleries, mysterious stained-glass windows and luminous top-lit ceiling, it never fails to impress.
The Mitchell Library Reading Room (after)
The Mitchell Library Reading Room (after)

Completed in 1942, and informed by a number of imposing classically-inspired library interiors in North America, its neutral background of travertine stone, cream walls and vaulting, and pale floor coverings was designed to emphasise the book-lined walls.

By 2020 the interior was in need of significant refurbishment, and the Library’s management, headed by Dr John Vallance, seized on the Covid closures of the Reading Room as an opportunity to implement major works. A key aim was to regain, as much as possible, the original character, a fusion of classical elements with some 1930s Deco accents. Important initiatives included: removing the intrusive stair to the basement; introducing high-performance ceiling lighting; illuminating the handsome coffered coved ceilings; restoring the symmetrical table layout; and rationalising the heavy card catalogues to the sides so as not to despoil the main space. The single most important change was the introduction of a fine broadloom carpet to provide a rich unifying element for the whole space.

Interior designer Rosemary Lucas, who has significant expertise in carpet design explains: ‘The decision to replace existing carpet tiles with broadloom carpet was ambitious, given the enormity of the space. It needed a large scale and confident design, one suitable to be seen from all perspectives.

‘There was no precedent to follow, so I looked to architectural and interior details that could offer direction to start the search. Decorative friezes and railings and the ceiling coffers all provided ideas evocative of the 1930s when the room was designed. The carpet needed to be a robust design with relevance and serviceability for years to come.

‘The vast area of the room (over 1000 square metres) provided me with freedom to develop a unique carpet design by reconfiguring and recolouring patterns from the huge design library of Brinton’s Carpets, one of the few Australian companies manufacturing woven carpet in their own overseas production facilities. Firstly, they provided computer printouts, then loom trials (a square of actual carpet) of a geometric motif which neither imitated nor copied a specific 1930s style. The Library reviewed the choices, and agreed to further development of the initial colours from Brinton’s tuft boxes.

‘A final loom trial with these adjustments was approved in August 2021, and the carpet is now installed.’

In parallel, the upper walls, the friezes, the coved coffered ceilings and the main ceiling were repainted using giant scissor lifts, the result a subtle scheme which emphasises the architectural modelling. The revised lighting is yet to come, improving night time reading conditions, and revealing the wonderful coffered ceilings, the latter capable of being washed with a subtle golden glow for special occasions.

Reading Room carpet consultants: Howard Tanner, consultant architect Rosemary Lucas, interior designer Mary Dewar Dutaillis, architect, Studio Dewar Derrick Edwards and Hector Alvarez, LCI Lighting Consultants. Find out more about the Library's major building plans here

This story appears in Openbook winter 2022.