Coffee and Architecture

What could the guy who makes my coffee possibly teach me about design excellence? A lot it turns out.

There is a small coffee shop that opened up in my neighborhood that moved into a spot that was occupied by a few other coffee shops that had failed. It has almost no street presence and the signage is from the last owner. On the inside though there is a beautiful 15 foot long vintage neon coffee sign blazing that, after passing by a few times, finally brought me in on an autumn morning. I was the only customer in the shop. Perhaps the only customer all morning.

The owner, Valentino, as I would later learn his name, worked behind the 2 stainless steel, hissing and steaming coffee making monsters. Like a kind of well-rehearsed dance with accompanying ‘music ‘ of the tapping of the espresso and the steaming of the milk I watched without trying to be too conspicuous. I was presented, in a beautifully simple cup with the perfect amount and consistency of creamy foam, a beautiful leafy design on top and a wonderfully rich taste, one of the best cappuccinos have ever had.

A number of subsequent visits and conversations revealed that the owner’s stepfather was an architect. He grew up watching him toil over decisions and details. He watched him notice the things in spaces and buildings that others simply walked past. He watched him argue with his clients for higher quality in the work. He saw the connections in all things to the quality of experience and thus the quality of life you can have. Pretty heady conversation for a barista? Not really, it turns out.

What I learned was that in his mind, to constantly work on the things that 90 percent of the people don’t understand contribute to the overall quality of the experience is what makes a great life’s work. Or coffee. Or whatever you are doing. You need the passion to work in what may appear to be anonymity because you know that it is what it takes to enrich the experience for your customer and to take your work to a new level.

He told me that it is not just about the quality of the product he makes- it is also about the customer. As an example he is able to understand whether a customer is left or right handed and will orient the handle to the cup in the proper direction. This focus on customer experience is sincere (‘authentic’- to pen an overused phrase) and mostly goes unnoticed by customers. How many of the things that we do as designers go unnoticed by our clients and the people using our buildings and spaces? Far more than we would like to admit. Does that make them any less valuable? I don’t think so. Perhaps at times having our work become a part of a seamless, delightful experience is the greatest compliment. I would suggest that part of our job as designers is to orchestrate experiences that, at times, may be about overt wonder and delight but also at times we act as the invisible puppeteer taking responsibility for the health and well-being of of our clients and society with our tools. Ours are not coffee (although essential to the creative process!)- they are organization, pattern finding, color, material, way finding, beauty, creative process leadership and all of the other things we have in our toolkit that let us ‘orient the handle’ towards our clients and society.