A Beautiful Approach to Bathing at Sense of Self

Interview by Matt Lennon
Photography by Jessica Tremp

The art and ritual of bathing is something we connect with deeply here at IN BED. Beyond the everyday luxury of a long, hot soak in the tub, bathing can be traced back through many cultures as a sacred act of both self-care and socialising. Two people well versed in this history are Mary Minas and Freya Berwick, the founders of Sense of Self, a beautiful new bathhouse in Collingwood, Melbourne. This week on The Journal we spoke to Mary about realising their singular vision, cultivating body positivity and the bathhouse’s unique approach to experiential design.

Hi Mary, can you start by telling us a little bit about SOS; what were your inspirations behind building the business and how did you go about bringing your vision to life?

Freya, my co-founder and I, shared a very similar interest in sensory spaces 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 its roots. As a filmmaker, I took five months out to research the bathhouses of Europe, North Africa and Japan for a documentary and also to help shape the SOS offering. I hadn’t yet met Freya, who was a botanist-turned-hotelier, and had spent time in the sauna culture of Scandinavia during years of working and living in Norway at a hotel she had redeveloped.

Inspirations for us come from art, design, and architecture from different eras, persuasions, and locations. People’s work who have inspired us include the Mexican architect Luis Barragan, Carlo Scarpa, Yve Saint Laurent’s Jardin Marjorelle in Marrakech, Louis Kahn’s works- particularly his monolithic buildings in India, and Carlota Guerrero’s photography utilising bodies in a modern yet Dali-esque way - all of these influences come together to inform our style of Mediterranean Brutalism, which is what we have used to describe the Sense Of Self bathhouse.

The process was a long and winding one, that involved a lot of community consultation, research, design, engineering, weathering a pandemic! Ultimately it took about five years to get to the point of opening the doors of the bathhouse, but now that we are open we’re so thrilled to be welcoming everyone into the space.

Inspirations for us come from art, design, and architecture from different eras, persuasions, and locations.

For anyone completely new to the bathhouse experience, what can clients expect when they visit?

Well we’re tucked away on an old industrial Collingwood street. When you arrive, behind two big steel doors you will discover the converted warehouse which has become the home of SOS.

We are not overly prescriptive around how people use the space. We call it a “choose-your-own-wellness” adventure, which includes communal bathing in a large hot mineral bath at 40ºC, a traditional Finnish sauna where you can douse water on the coals to create dry heat that reaches up to 80ºC, a cold pail shower for dunking yourself with, and our cold plunge pool at a frosty 10ºC.

One of the primary goals of the space is to help people be in their bodies, and we did this through the design trope of Mediterranean Brutalism. 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. The spaces we like are playful, so we’ve worked a lot with 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.

Staying mentally, physically and emotionally well feels like an increasingly important priority given the current climate, how does SOS approach self-care and what is it you hope clients will take away from their visit?

As an act, bathing is a form of disrobing, both literally and metaphorically. It is an act of communion with other people, sometimes ‘strangers’, where you slow down, take a moment to look after yourself - whether that’s your sore body or perhaps a tired mind. It is an invitation to see one another in a way we don’t get to in day-to-day life. In the bathhouse you have a special opportunity, because you are surrounded by other people doing the same thing, in all different body types, which ultimately fosters a feeling of belonging.

Communal baths are regenerative spaces. We hope SOS fosters togetherness, deep rest, self-contemplation, resilience - all things that add to our wellbeing and longevity!

As an act, bathing is a form of disrobing, both literally and metaphorically.

Can you talk a bit about your own journey in wellness and how your personal experiences have shaped the way you do things at SOS?

As people who have been very busy at times in our lives, we are big advocates for idleness being something we should all aspire to for balance. Also, we have both experienced a pretty profound desire to cultivate body acceptance through communal bathing. When I was researching for the documentary and as I engaged more and more with these spaces, I realised the transformative effect it had on my relationship with my body. The ability to observe myself amongst the diversity of bodies, tangibly face my fears, meant that I could start to accept myself as one of many.

The space you’ve built to house SOS feels refreshingly unfamiliar when we think of usual spa experiences. What was the design process like and how interconnected do you think design is to the way clients experience and interact with the space?

Unlike most day spa experiences, which tend to focus on moody luxury and 1:1 treatments, Sense of Self looks to ancient communal bathing design for inspiration, using natural light and shared relaxation moments to deliver a space designed to heal through communion and nourishment. Lots of consideration has been given to tacility, materiality and spatial flow, recognising that the way our bodies relate to their environment is key within a heightened state of vulnerability. From the patina of the brass tapware to the rawness of the imperfect concrete forms and the lush, verdant greenery throughout the space, patrons are immersed in an environment that aims to remove the external stressors of everyday life to encourage healing, rest and connection.

Lots of consideration has been given to tacility, materiality and spatial flow, recognising that the way our bodies relate to their environment is key within a heightened state of vulnerability.

While taking time to visit SOS feels like something we’d love to do regularly, are there any self-care tips that you could share that we might be able to implement at home between visits?

Gosh, we think self-care is as about the rituals you have in your day with friends, family, your community - maybe it’s going for walk, having a cup of tea, turning off your phone, drinking some wine over food with friends… just things that restore you.

In terms of a spa experience, one of my favourite things to do at home is to create my own facial experience by using a home-made hot towel.

  1. Apply your favourite cleanser -  I usually like to use a cleansing oil for this because it’s nourishing and the hot towel takes off most of the oily residue. Work it into the skin by giving yourself a little face massage, especially on the areas where we hold tension, such as the jaw, temples, and forehead.
  2. Put hot water (from the tap or kettle) into a big bowl with a few drops of essential oil.
  3. Place your favourite flannel/face washer into the hot water. 
  4. Using tongs to take it out and let it sit in the (clean) sink to cool down for a few moments.
  5. Next, wring it out really well.
  6. This step is optional - pop it in the microwave for 1 minute.
  7. Open it out and kind of wave it and fan it to get the heat out for a few seconds.
  8. When you feel it’s cool enough that it won’t burn your face but it’s still really warm, bring the face. washer up to your face, compress your whole face, breath in the beautiful smell.
  9. Then turn the towel over and keep compressing different parts of your face and neck, without wiping.

Your face will feel super clean and moisturised and will smell good too!

Finally, what’s next for SOS and what are you most looking forward to for the rest of 2021?

Well we’re currently building our hammam space, which will be a wet humid steam space where people can do really fun scrub and mud rituals once it is open! We’re also looking forward to launching a series of events, including one in collaboration with our friends at Small Beyond and another more musical one!

And soon we will have sessions open for nude bathing, which will be really special and important for a lot of people in their body journeys.