How the Once Humble Gym Became the New Nightclub

Transforming from a spartan sweat box to a holistic wellness and social hub, gyms have become, increasingly, a place to flex interior design prowess.

Article by Alison Izzo

Stylish gyms_The CalileThe Calile's aesthetically pleasing fitness interior. Photography by Sean Fennessy.

Most players in the fitness industry have by now bounced back from the dark days of pandemic shutdowns, but the providers who’ve embraced a feeling of renewal — especially regarding interior aesthetics — have fared the best. Big franchise gym brands, with their dark interiors, corporate grey carpeting and fluorescent lighting, can feel jarring after the comfort of rolling out the yoga mat or livestreaming HIIT classes in the living room. Now, the spaces in which we exercise need to be more welcoming and interesting to lure us back — and to inspire us to cough up for ongoing memberships. Consequently, savvy fitness professionals are putting a previously nonexistent focus on the aesthetics of their gyms, studios and centres. Walk into your local yoga studio and you’re likely to spot a Sarah Ellison bouclé Huggy chair or a knock-off of Ettore Sottsass’ Ultrafragola wave mirror sitting in the corner. And for good reason, says Fluidform Pilates founder Kirsten King. 

“Over the past three years, since the pandemic, there has been a shift from exercising to look a certain way to actually wanting to feel good,” King explains. A visually beautiful space makes feeling good just that little bit easier. The aesthetic of King’s studios is a big part of the brand, which both franchisees (there are eight studio spaces down Australia’s east coast) and clients buy in to. Think: minimalist styling in a neutral palette, punctuated by natural finishes such as J’Jute baskets, cane Liza consoles by Sarah Ellison and metal-framed mirrors and timber Tonk stools from MCM House. King says clients are now asking, “ ‘What serves us, or what brings us joy?’ … It no longer feels good to work out in the dark with artificial lights and lack of natural light and life. It’s important to associate exercise with restorative, calming and energising spaces to reflect this in your movements.” 

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Sun falls on the entrance desk at Fluidform Bondi. Photography courtesy of Fluidform.
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Fluidform's founder Kirsten King. Photograph courtesy of Fluidform.
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The interior of Fluidform's Bondi studio. Photography courtesy of Fluidform.

That connection to joy was a motivating factor for Bernadette Fahey, who recently opened her Body By Berner fitness studio in Sydney’s North Bondi. Fahey has taken a similarly considered approach to design, but in a more maximalist manner. Coloured pottery sits inside pockets within a custom-made “cave wall” by Jacob Pedrana, while a timber room divider was handpainted with a mural of Fahey’s naked form by the artist Daniel Knew. “Everyone who walks into Body By Berner comments on the beauty and design of the studio,” says Fahey. “Clients love it as it provides them with something interesting to look at while they train.” Like King, Fahey wanted the space to spark joy for clients. “Many people see exercise as a chore or something they have to do. [This] is a studio that makes people feel excited to come to and work out,” she says. “Ultimately, this creates a more positive relationship with exercise.”

The pull to create homelike environments is strong as sterile mass-market gyms lose favour. King uses scent and mood-lifting but never blaring music to evoke that, explaining, “We’ve been told that our studios are a safe haven. Clients will often call their studio their second home.” Fahey added a day bed and sitting area complete with fresh fruit, candles and coffee table books because she “wanted clients to feel as though they [had] walked into a friend’s living room — to evoke a feeling of being safe and secure”.

Interior designer Alison Palmer, an associate director at the interior design and architecture firm Jackson Clements Burrows, thinks there’s a meta trend underpinning this generalised “gym glow-up”. “We have seen this same transition in workplace design over the last decade. We’ve gone from formal, corporate-style environments to a more relaxed residential feel, with measurable success in engagement and wellbeing. The next stage in this evolution is in our gyms and workout spaces. 

“We feel the most comfortable in our homes with natural materials like timber, greenery and soft furnishings,” Palmer continues. “It makes sense that we would be at our best in these spaces, too.”

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Fluidform Rosebery's monochromatic interiors. Photograph courtesy of Fluidform.

ntony DiMase, practice director at Melbourne’s DiMase Architects, agrees. “The psychology behind this is well developed — we want the places we work and play in to feel familiar, as it creates a space that is more inviting, more interesting,” says DiMase. “The good gyms have a human soul and invite people to really take part in physical activities. Often it comes down to the lighting and material selections that can give these spaces a warmth and energy that invites people to visit and stay longer.”

Brisbane’s The Calile Hotel put particular emphasis on the look but also the geographical placement of its onsite gym. Owner and director Michael Malouf explains: “The gym is a guest service that is often neglected and located in the furthest, darkest corners of a hotel. The Calile set out to create a space adjacent to the pool and day spa that was approached with the same design ethos and thoughtfulness as the rest of the hotel, hopefully making workouts more pleasurable.” Its cork flooring, pale timber cabinetry, exposed steel beams and natural light make it a vastly different workout experience from the standard hotel gym. “The Gymnasium is an important part of The Calile’s operation as a guest experience and enjoyment is paramount — we invest in quality design and materials to help deliver those experiences in even the most surprising moments, like a tough workout,” says Malouf.

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The Calile Hotel in Brisbane. Photography by Sean Fennessy.

Like the proverbial tree in the forest, if you work out and don’t post a sweaty selfie, did the workout ever happen? A beautiful backdrop makes that online sharing process far easier, and so the power of the ’gram has an undeniable impact on interior styling choices for savvy fitness operators. Fahey freely admits this, saying, “I understand the power social media plays in promoting a business. I knew I had to create a studio that would cut through the noise and was distinctly ‘Body By Berner’. In this day and age, social content must be considered in
the design process.”

The approach has worked for her as it has for King and Malouf; each of their spaces has gained considerable Instagram fame thanks to their clients’ willingness to snap and share on social media. However, the overriding motivation behind these designer furniture-filled studios and expertly designed gyms is something more substantial than “likes” or TikTok tours. It’s the desire to add more joy to everyday life in healthy and easily sustainable ways.

King says she asks the same question of herself and her team: “How can we evoke positive feelings through actions and experiences?” The answer? “Well, exercise is a good place to start — and doing it in a beautiful, inspiring space is recommended.”