Sydney-born Michelle Derbyshire may be a residential designer by trade, but that hasn’t stopped her designing a raft of restaurant projects in and around her adopted hometown of Manchester. Perhaps, she suggests, that’s because “from a design perspective, there’s been a massive overlap of styles in the last 10 years between home and commercial settings.” Hospitality Interiors’ Paul Farley pulled up a chair at her latest accomplishment, Artisan, to test Michelle’s theory.

Looking around Manchester’s newest designer eaterie, there’s no denying that there’s an inviting softness to the surroundings, far from the confrontational sterility of those restaurants of yesteryear which we guilty of trying too hard.

Informality, explains Michelle, comes easy to Australians. “In Australia, when you dine it’s about the food and the people,” she says. “They dine out a lot more than  people do here. In Australia there’s a laid-back, relaxed lifestyle – and the UK is quite the opposite.”

A born wanderer, Michelle made the decision to emigrate to the UK after meeting her husband-to-be at the Commonwealth Games in 2001. Despite the social differences, Michelle has succeeded in bringing a touch of that casual vibe with her, and has amassed quite a portfolio of work, both commercial and domestic, since. The last month alone – puntuated by a holiday to the south of France – has seen her complete the Grand Pacific bar and garden, an adjunct to the nearby Australasia venue, as well as our current location.

“I like to have a starting point to keep me on track right through the design process. If your client isn’t able to visualise what you’re going for, they can be prone to pulling back – it’s always an anxious time for me."

Both of these restaurants are owned and operated by the Living Ventures Group, which owns such brands as Blackhouse, Gusto, Red Door, Suburbia, The Alchemist and the New World Pub Company – and has proved a “brilliant” client to work with. “I always say you are only as good as your client will let you be. Tim [Bacon, CEO and co-founder, Living Ventures Group] was easy to interpret, and very open minded. When you work with someone in design, that really is an asset.”

Artisan occupies a 12,000ft2 space on the first floor of an old office block in Manchester’s Spinningfields district, a “big, cold shell” of a location, and not one which made for an easy transition. “Originally, I was asked to do a restaurant with a wood-fired oven as a key feature,” says Michelle, “but this building was not designed with smoke extraction in mind. The whole process was a bit stop-start.

“I like to have a starting point to keep me on track right through the design process. If your client isn’t able to visualise what you’re going for, they can be prone to pulling back – it’s always an anxious time for me. I think that any time you do something slightly unpredictable, people try to pass judgement before seeing the complete picture. I’m lucky that Living Ventures is such a professional, tight operation, and they know what works – in this case, I think the client put more faith in me than I had in me!”

Given its laboured conception, Artisan is a feat of reinvention, comprising a wealth of characterful areas and decorative touches that reflect the feel Michelle expected to encounter in Manchester when she first visited many years ago.

“Artisan is down-tempo, chilled, edgy,” she says. “It’s got art, that creative feel, and an energy which I always imagined Manchester to have. I took inspiration from the creative side of the city, particularly the Northern Quarter.”

The name of the venue itself was Michelle’s idea, and reflects the artist’s loft/studio space feel she aimed to recreate. From the hessian shades, indoor herb gardens and long bar to the concrete surrounds, art installations and those crucial wood-fired ovens, Artisan reflects Manchester’s local manufacturing heritage on a personal level, informed by Michelle’s own experiences.

For example, there is a photo booth in which guests can capture memories of their visit. “There were photo booths all over Berlin just after the Wall came down. I saw the upheaval there. All the shops were taken over by artists – there was this real raw energy and creativity.  Everybody had left, and it gave all those creative people a place in which to work and display.

“Artisan was also influenced by New York – but not in the typical sense. Because places are so expensive to rent over there, many new businesses don’t have the money to fit them out properly, so they leave unfinished, exposed areas. It’s basically budget-driven – which is apt, because, for a project of this size, the budget was not big.

“Finally, there are nods to Manchester – in particular, the older warehouses and the linen industry, which are reflected in the inexpensive upholstery and furnishing fabrics. The idea is that it’s all just temporary – affordable materials, plywood, aluminium sections … it all looks thrown together.”

Graphical elements create much of the “creative energy” around Artisan. Steve Smith from Neasden Control Centre illustrated the bigger screens, which, to Michelle, look “like an artist’s sketch book. It’s very apt – I had a folder of ideas with me all the time I was putting this together, and the end result reminds me of study doodles and scrapbooks.”

Then there’s the feature areas. The Studio, a private dining room, is decorated with art and accessories inspired by an artist’s studio. It’s a large yet intimate space, and popular for gatherings – the Manchester United football team most recently, says Michelle.

“Artisan is down-tempo, chilled, edgy. It’s got art, that creative feel, and an energy which I always imagined Manchester to have. I took inspiration from the creative side of the city, particularly the Northern Quarter.”

The designer is particularly proud of the Bitchin’ Lounge, an informal area adjacent to the women’s toilets which is modelled on a Fifties’ department store. She says: “The Bitchin’ Lounge is a place for girls in pairs to... y’know, just chat!” Glass walls mean the space is actually quite public, however. “People walking down nearby King Street just look up and see this room full of girls talking!”

As with the graphics, principally local craftspeople and suppliers have been employed to furnish the restaurant. The kitchen supplies, joinery, signage, blinds and upholstery are all sourced from nearby specialists. “I tried to use smaller local suppliers when I could,” says Michelle. “Ideally, I like working with individuals whenever possible.”

It’s been a huge transformation. What was grey office space is now a warm, stimulating restaurant, flanked by glowing ovens and chillout corners. Its wide expanse has been broken into intimate eating booths by low-rise walls and industrial-style dividers that echo the still-bare concrete surrounds. It’s a worthy addition to Living Ventures’ colourful portfolio.

Of course, nothing beats experiencing a place in person. “The beauty of Artisan is it’s so accessible, informal and inexpensive,” says Michelle. “The food is a great match for the interior – it’s simple ‘feed your soul’ food. My meal of choice here is the Big Plate – poached eggs, smoked salmon and crushed potatoes.”

I’m already hungry for more.