News & Features » Cover Story

By Design

Cafes have replaced comfy couches with co-working spaces.


Coffee shops were having a moment in the late '90s.

Starbucks began popping up in all our neighborhoods with softly lit ambience and smooth jazz play lists. We fell in love with places, however fictional, like Central Perk on "Friends" and Luke's Diner on "Gilmore Girls," an establishment so beloved by viewers that locally-owned coffee shops around the country re-branded for a day as Luke's Diner when the reboot of the television show premiered — here it was Captain Buzzy's Beanery.

Those places were memorable for their homey nuances, antique coffee tables, bright paint colors and the feeling of spending time in a friend's living room.

We now find ourselves in the third wave of coffee, a term coined by Timothy Castle of the Coffee Curmudgeon blog, emphasizing the quality of the product and interest in localizing it and learning about it.

In 2008, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold of LA Weekly wrote of the third wave: "Beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure."

The same could be said for the new interior design approach. There's an interest in serving coffee in a space that is clean and pure. There may not be a spot for curling up with a mug and good book but instead, large tables for co-working and outlets tucked into nearby nooks to charge laptops and phones. Windows tend to be huge, often floor-to-ceiling. Decorative trinkets and tchotchkes are notably absent. Signs are minimal. What was once a communal orange couch is now a communal maple table.

And there's the white subway tile. Designers George C. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge are credited with first creating and using the glossy pale 3-by-6-inch rectangle tiles for the inaugural station of New York's subway in 1904. The material became popular to use in bathrooms because the tiles don't stain and are easy to maintain. But these days what it really conveys is a minimalist aesthetic.

The design blogs, HGTV's lovable Joanna Gaines of "Fixer Upper," and your home improvement-obsessed friends on Pinterest aren't wrong: Subway tile provides a neutral palette for places with compelling architectural features, and is an ideal complement to refurbished spaces. In an venerable city like Richmond, business owners often find themselves leasing a space that is more than 100 years old. They want to preserve and showcase original brick but clean it up to feel refined and contemporary.

Felt letter boards are the new chalkboards and functionally matches the clean aesthetic. No chalk dust. No illegible menus. Just black felt and white plastic letters spelling out simple words and numbers for prices, like they used to do in schools or church halls several decades ago. Whisk Bakery, just as much a coffee bar as it is a pastry destination, displays cutesy epithets on a pink felt board in Instagram posts.

And speaking of pink, Quirk Hotel's coffee bar, which serves its own line of Blanchard's coffee, features those pink velvet loveseats, but also a spotless white marble countertop with barely anything on it. The adjacent seating falls into that same pink-white-and-black color scheme, as does the massive wall art made of coffee cup lids by artist Susie Ganch. The large windows soak the coffee bar in natural light. There is elegance in simplicity.

Quirk Hotel’s coffee bar has also embraced the crisp white color scheme. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Quirk Hotel’s coffee bar has also embraced the crisp white color scheme.  

Almost every inch of Graduate Richmond's part-coffee-shop, part-bar, Brookfield, is white. That tile is everywhere, the display shelves are open, and it's well-lit with pendant light fixtures and dark brown wooden bar seats, providing an overall look that is extremely appealing.

The Morris Street location of Lamplighter Coffee Roasters is tiny, featuring a working garage door for impromptu sunshine and fresh air. Chrome machinery pops against the white-brick walls and dark countertops. Seating is all gray stools, which are barely comfortable, at industrial, metal-trimmed tables that are drilled into the floor. The menu is on a black-and-white felt board.

The message is clear: It's not about getting cozy. It's about a good cup of coffee.

Click here to read more of the Coffee Issue