A new bathhouse and wellness concept, Sense of Self (SOS), is set to launch in Melbourne this spring.
to transform how we think about self care and wellbeing practices.
Drawing on the ancient rituals of bathing culture, founders Mary Minas and Freya Berwick aim to foster stronger social connections whilst make self-care a part of everyday life through a more affordable price point.
We managed to grab an interview with Mary and Freya when we were last down in Melbourne, to chat about the creation of their business, self care and how they are going about designing their beautiful bathhouse space in an old Collingwood warehouse.
[TLSE] Tell us a little about Sense of Self (SOS), and how it all began...
[Mary] My obsession with public bathing started from an experience I had with one of my best friends, Nehla, when I was about 20 years old. She’s French-Tunisian, and took me to the hammam at the Mosque of Paris. Nehla guided me through rituals that her Mum took her through each week while she was growing up.
As I engaged more and more with these spaces, I realised the transformative effect it had on my relationship with my body. I have always struggled with body image. The ability to observe myself amongst the intergenerational bathing in neighbourhood bathhouses allowed me to… for the first time in my life, tangibly face my fears, and start to approach my issue with body acceptance because I realised that I was at once the same and also completely unique to all of the bodies around me, and I felt alright.
Years later I went on a research trip, originally to create a documentary on the history of public bathing, to the Roman, Moorish and Ottoman bathing cities. I realised I had a deep desire to design and create something for people here in Melbourne.
[Freya] Growing up in the Daintree, I have always believed in the power of connection with place and the self. After studying botanical science and working in research, I fell hard for Scandinavian design and sauna culture during a three-year stint in Norway, where I redeveloped and managed a hotel. I returned to Australia to focus on experience design and starting my own thing, at which point I met Mary. We shared the same interest in bathhouses and the idea of cultivating more positive relationships with our bodies and selves. So, we decided to create a bathing experience that stripped back the approach to it roots, with a “no bs” mantra.
How do you nurture your sense of self through wellness?
[Freya] By being mindful of encroaching expectations, from myself and others, and making sure I am disciplined about meeting my own needs and doing what replenishes my energy so I don’t go out of whack. There are loads of things that I do to stay aligned to my sense of self, and I tend to pick and choose depending on my vibe; anything from cooking a meal, yoga, swimming, walking and talking with friends, being in nature, or booking a holiday. The main thing for me is to stay attuned to myself and commit to doing what I feel I need... although I don’t always get that right.
[Mary] I like to nurture my well-being through basic things. I love to talk to and connect with people, so I make sure I talk with my friends and family every day - on the phone, over a cuppa at our houses, over food. I also like to go to the movies by myself in the middle of the day without telling anyone (sorry to any of my ex-employers). Anything that is at the cross section of what Aristotle termed “eudaimonic” - well-being and hedonism.
How has your own life and travelling experiences influenced the atmosphere of your space?
[Freya] In so many ways! In retrospect, I see a pretty clear path to what we are doing now. From growing up in Daintree on a small, sustainable farm across a river in a house that was always under construction (yes, my parents were hippies), I developed a pretty deep appreciation for nature, produce, and design. And then living in Norway co-creating the hotel and restaurant, which focused on connecting travellers to the local landscape through the hotel and dining experience, I realised my love for creating meaningful experiences.
[Mary] My cultural background has informed why and how I’m approaching creating this experience. The Greek Cypriot culture is one of warmth, embrace, communion, wildness, care, and most of all connection. We live to connect with one another. My filmmaking experience and creating cinematic experiences also informs how I think about the design and sensory elements at SOS. And, my time visiting bathing cultures, the generosity of spirit in those places heavily influences what I hope will be the atmosphere at Sense Of Self.
You are working collaboratively on the design of your first location with an all-female design team from Setsquare Studio, Chamberlain Architects, and Hearth Studios on your Collingwood space.
Was this sense of collaboration always an important element in your business?
[Freya] SOS is a unique design challenge because we’re trying to create strength from vulnerability, and so we’re really grateful to have multiple views. The architects Caitlin, Ella and Sarah have collaborated on a variety of projects across the last 10 years, and with SOS, each person is bringing together their shared passions and diverse skill sets across architecture, interiors, landscape, film, writing, hospitality, and music/ sound.
[Mary] Particularly the appreciation for different needs is important to us. We know that a space like this, where you’re taking your clothes off or sharing space with strangers, can be confronting and vulnerable. This vulnerability is especially true for our friends in the trans and non-binary communities. So, it was important for us to collaborate with a team of people who have the empathy to listen to people’s stories and transform these varying points of view into good design that helps to guide people through the experience so that people can feel comfortable in the space and in themselves.
Tell us about the Space, what role does texture/colour or materials play in achieving the ‘Mediterranean Brutalism’ aesthetic?
[Freya] One of the primary goals of the space is to help people be in their bodies. The Brutalist aspect demands presence and the softness of the Mediterranean design helps to make it an inviting space. Honestly, we think a lot of “wellness” places out there are a bit dull and boring. Put your hand up if you are sick of listening to muzak in a spa that has shades of beige?! The spaces we like are playful, so we’ve spoken a lot about materiality that holds surprise and delight with different water activations, temperature and form. When it comes down to it, we just want it to be a relaxing and fun experience.
Your brand seems to have a great ethos and story behind it, which grounds your business.
Why is this important to you?
[Mary] Our ethos and purpose is the most important thing to us. Self-care and wellbeing are delicate and subjective things. We don’t want to be misleading about what Sense Of Self can do for you, or dictate to people what they might need.
Let’s not overstate it, very simply, we are giving people a place to have a bath together! On a deeper level, what we’re hoping is that this experience can create a space of hope and connection, and that it will be a tangible space where people can regard, accept and trust in their bodies again.
What are your personal go-to practices for a dose of self-care?
[Freya] It depends on how I am feeling, but some of my rituals include a swim, walk with a friend, yoga, sauna, staying in bed, dancing, and of course, a bath.
[Mary] Being silly with my friends, drinking, being in water, dancing to disco, watching really good and really bad films, cooking people pastitsio.
Beauty is more than skin deep and self-care is a practice, not an indulgence.
What are some ways to achieve this mantra in our daily lives?
[Freya] Beauty really is inside out - it is about how you feel not how you look. That’s not to say that grooming or external care doesn’t have a place in feeling well or good, it does. It’s just that external beauty shouldn’t define or always be the intended outcome of doing something for ourselves and our well being. And most beauty norms exclude huge swathes of the community.
There is often guilt associated with things that you do just for you, where you’re taking time out or just relaxing. This time in history we’ve never been more productive, and possibly we’ve also never had more burn out. Learning what nourishes or depletes you requires ongoing practice. It’s a habit and an internal conversation that will, at times, go off-kilter. The key is not to judge yourself.
There’s a Hawaiian prayer we often return to: I love you, I am sorry, please forgive me, thank you.
It’s something we are learning too, and a really tricky one to balance with opening a new business!
Interviewed By Isabelle Clark, TLSE
Find out more about SOS here.