Coffee Shop Review
We have to work with the space we have. This applies to all kinds of different spaces but we are so desensitized to bad design, we only notice when someone else pays attention to their environment and it all seems to fit perfectly.
Blue Bottle Coffee is located at 40 Bow Street in Cambridge. When I went in to explain to the barista that I was there to study the interior design and take a few photos, she explained that Blue Bottle Company is very specific and consistent with its design aesthetic. I think she was talking about everything needing to be clean and spare behind the counter because it is all visible. But I think this is less important than the use of the space. I will separate out two aspects of interior design: programming (where things are) and aesthetic (what they look like).
The approach to the front of the Blue Bottle is visible from down two different streets. The windows are large enough to see in clearly as you approach so you know what is going on in there – it is clearly a coffee shop. As such (and probably by Historic Commission insistence) the sign for the cafe is small. But it has street presence because of the symmetry of the facade. The front entry is clear by the step up and into the facade plane. This also makes for rain protection. But then it is a bit confusing which door to go in for the newcomer. Right or left? The moment it takes to discover the correct door is only as long as a breath, but one breath can establish a bit of calm. Entering to the right is good feng shui (preventing evil spirits from coming straight in theoretically). Even though the cafe is one large space, at the entrance you can’t see much of it. The first thing you see is the banquette and a set of low stools that can be used for seats or side tables. As you move into the space there are different seating arrangements that invite you to make the space your own. Do you have a business meeting sitting across from each other? A date sitting side by side? Coffee with friends standing around? Time alone and need a bit of privacy? These all require different arrangements of chairs tables and buffer space.
There are standard tables and chairs opposite the banquette (after the stools). There is a very narrow bar to stand at. There is a seat height counter with chairs along one wall for singles with laptops. There is a cozy nook around the corner and partially hidden by some display shelves. People will not always be able to get the exact seats they need for their coffee time but there is hope that they might because there are so many options.
The route to get your coffee is not confusing as the register is visible as you walk in. The pastry display is well lit, and with all the baristas facing the customers, you can see who is making what coffee and for whom. This is comfortable.
The ceiling height and the windows are the most dramatic part of the cafe. The extra large windows along the short front side and the first 15 or so feet of both sides of the cafe draw an incredible amount of light even on a cloudy day. Simple mullions allow customers to see the flow of foot traffic and the bustle that is Harvard. The symmetry is also pleasing – our eyes like having light from both sides as it helps us see three dimensionally better. Smaller windows draw the eye back along the walls, giving each seat a good amount of light and spilling light onto the light birch counters and light metals which also help bounce the light around. Since the ceilings are so high, it might feel dark or glare-y trying to light the space with artificial lights from so high up. A very few pendants are required for task lighting or ambience, but they are white too on the outside and remain part of the background.
Moving into the cafe and ordering your drink you might notice that the space is not square, thanks to the lot the building is on. It is smaller in the front of the store and larger in the back. This is a standard optical illusion for making a space seem bigger than it is. Although I guess the baristas have the opposite effect. The trapezoid is well hidden in the coffee service counter which is not at a right angle. You would not notice this unless you were on top of it. Keeping the counter parallel to the walls augments the space illusion.
The design aesthetic of the Blue Bottle Coffee is spare and modern. Materials are mostly dull, such as the brushed metal countertop and soft grey colored concrete floor, and light, such as the birch wood veneer counter sides and tables, the waste and recycling area and the paneled board behind the counter. This, plus white walls, white ceiling, and no artwork anywhere reflects Japanese as well as Danish Modern styles.
The traditional Japanese mode of interior design is to allow the eyes to relax on large plain spaces, but to also feel the “living” presence of wood and the “honest” expressions of materials such as concrete and metal. The Danish modern style is evident in the extremely minimal door and window casings, and the crisp corners at the joint of the counter top and sides. Actually, these are very expensive details because craftsmen have to be more precise. Consistency and straight lines are very difficult in a building originally built in 1880.
The menu is simple and clear to read. It is high enough that everyone in the space can see it. I wonder how easy it is for the staff to alter it. The simple glass carafes and the glass pastry display are the only shiny bits in the cafe. So they draw the customers attention to what is being sold in the cafe!
Artwork is minimal so that the faces and clothes of people are on display without competition. I can see why college students would love that. But there is one item on display which is just mysterious enough to draw a curious customer over for a look. It is vaguely steampunk and, upon inspection, appears to be an award which reaffirms the customer’s choice to go to this coffee shop where they serve award winning coffee.
I noticed that Blue Bottle also sells books and bags of coffee. I believe that brick and mortar stores particularly, but also food establishments have to reinvent themselves to compete with the ease of internet purchases. We need to make the shop into an experience for customers to interact with each other or at least just get away from the computer. Paint cafes are a new success because of this. And I think yoga studios, art galleries, and cafes succeed based on how they bring people together and give them a good, repeatable experience. Of course, excellent coffee helps too!
types of seating: