Originally published January 5, 2016 at SHEIMagazine.com.

The cherries of the coffee plant have been used as a stimulant for close to 1200 years. Scholars trace coffee’s discovery to 9th century Ethiopia, and a number of apocryphal origin stories: a monastic order who experimented with homeopathy; a traveling mystic; a goat herder whose flock became energized after chewing on the fruit of a red bush. By the early 1400’s, in the middle of the Islamic Golden Age, Arabian traders became the first non-Africans to sample coffee beans. Word of a stimulating magic fruit spread like wildfire, and by the end of the 15th century, the world’s first coffeehouses were open for business in the holy city of Mecca.

Engraving of Mecca by Carl Ponheimer (1803),  based on an illustration in Mouradgea d’Ohsson’s 1787  Tableau Général de l’Empire Ottoman  

Engraving of Mecca by Carl Ponheimer (1803),  based on an illustration in Mouradgea d’Ohsson’s 1787 Tableau Général de l’Empire Ottoman 

Because the Quran bans devout Muslims from consuming depressive (if not mildly euphoric) alcohol, coffee provided the perfect compromise to the intelligentsia of Golden Age Arabia: adherence to faith, a slight head-buzz, and a burst of stimulating energy that invigorated thought rather than muddled it. Sheikh Jamal-al-Din al-Dhabhani, credited in a 1587 book on the history of coffee as the first to adopt its use, reported that consuming it as a beverage “brought to the body a certain spiritfulness and vigor”.

Italian traders soon brought the beans to post-Renaissance Europe, and by the time of the European Enlightenment, coffeehouses had become gathering places more than simply places to grab a drink. The coffeehouse was the opposite of the neighborhood pub: it was quiet, conversational, and had an aura of social decorum. You didn’t sing bawdy songs in a coffeehouse; instead, you caught up on current events with a cadre of friends, neighbors, and even visiting academics. Coffeehouses in London gained the nickname “Penny Universities”, equating the price of a cup of coffee with a value far greater than brewed roasted cherries.

"The Antiquarian Society" by George Cruikshank (1812) depicts the meeting of a group of London elites brought together over coffee. The group is rowdy, but dressed and composed as intellectuals. (source:  The National Trust Collections )

"The Antiquarian Society" by George Cruikshank (1812) depicts the meeting of a group of London elites brought together over coffee. The group is rowdy, but dressed and composed as intellectuals. (source: The National Trust Collections)

Since the creation of the coffeehouse, there has always been a distinctly intangible sophistication surrounding both the location and its beverage of choice. But a codified, dignified culture? That’s much newer.

Coffee preparation has always had a ritualistic flair (see: the Bunna, or Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony), but the recent rise of specialty espresso drinks spurred on by 1970’s West Coast America has shifted the ceremonial preparation out of the home and into the café. Coffee culture itself is a relatively recent term. The coffeehouses of yore did not serve intricate and hand-crafted espresso drinks – they served water with beans in it. Fast forward to 2015, and coffeehouses have become experiences as meticulously-executed as the drinks they serve.   

Since this is Design in Life, we’re going to focus on the thoughtful and contemporary evolution of the objects associated with the modern coffee culture experience. My goal: unpack the details that make up the trendy coffeeshop experience, from SoHo to Ann Arbor. I’ll highlight 3 of the world’s design hotbeds and just how each has influenced the modern coffee ritual, from the products they’ve designed to the spaces they’ve created. After all, no one pays $5 for the cup of coffee without a hearty dose of intangible goodness. You’ll never Instagram your latte art the same.



"Coutome" cafe inside the Takashimaya Department Store, Futako-Tamagawa, Japan

"Coutome" cafe inside the Takashimaya Department Store, Futako-Tamagawa, Japan

From denim to whiskey, Japan is infatuated with perfecting Western culture. A so-called “Japanese design sensibility” applied to imported cultural tropes has been used to describe everything from Americana clothing Engineered Garments to the Tokyo jazz scene as “American culture made better”. Coffee is no exception.Japanese coffee culture blew up in the 1980’s with the opening of Doutor, the island nation’s first coffeeshop chain. European-style specialty coffee cafes hit critical mass during Japan’s economic bubble, and have come to be known as “Bubble Cafes” – big, impersonal, and hurried. While Starbucks and Doutor enjoy massive popularity today, independent coffeehouses have become the new hangout spots for members of Japan’s trend-obsessed urban youth.

These smaller neighborhood spots, like Tokyo’s Be A Good Neighbor kiosk, practice coffee as ritual. This relatively new technique requires practice, patience, and an unyielding desire for gradual improvement - the diametric opposite of the Bubble Cafes. But to disciples of the Japanese pour-over coffee method, the results are worth it.

Be A Good Nieghbor Coffee Kiosk, Skytree (source: sprudge.com)

Be A Good Nieghbor Coffee Kiosk, Skytree (source: sprudge.com)

A coffee pour-over is nothing more than manual control over the brewing process. Same as before, boiling water saturates ground beans and produces a cup of coffee; only now, human intuition (not industrial programming) guides the water’s flow. The ritual of pour-over emphasizes slowness, procedure, and awareness. An attentive barista will gradually improve their skills, and produce increasingly better coffee through daily practice. The Japanese have a word for this constant subtle attention- kaizen, or “continuous improvement”.

As a result, objects of Japanese coffee culture evoke a certain thoughtfulness and economy. The Hario V60 Dripper, a 4”-tall white ceramic cone used to produce pour-overs (above), is utilitarian. It is also beautifully rendered, featuring subtle inlays and stark off-white tones that evoke china cups.

The Buono kettle, the V60’s swan-necked companion (also produced by Hario), is designed to facilitate deliberate control – you really have to upend the Buono to get water flowing. But, the handle is designed ergonomically for this tipped position, and the kettle’s slender neck is decidedly organic rather than pipette-straight. Both are easy to look at (V60 in white; Buono in grey), lack extraneous features or intrusive blinking lights, and built around function. 

Even mass market objects (notably, Hiroshi Fukiwara’s “fragment design x Starbucks Japan” mugs circa 2014) retain this obsession with understatement. Subtle attention, indeed.

fragment design x Starbucks mug collection (2014) (source:  hypebeast.com )

fragment design x Starbucks mug collection (2014) (source: hypebeast.com)

Japanese coffeehouses reflect these virtues with every pour-over they make. Tokyo’s Streamer Coffee Company, Omotesando Coffee, and Blue Bottle Café are a couple such places. All three emphasize craft alongside experience, serving artisan drinks in chic, minimal environments that feature distinctly Japanese design details (light hardwoods, open floorplans, natural lighting, etc.) However, the experimental furnishings and “chic modernity” of these locations are far from native. Even the most storied Japanese coffeehouses are overwhelmingly influenced by the design innovations of the world’s most coffee-obsessed region: Scandinavia.


Drop Coffee Roasters, Stockholm (source:  kinfolk.com )

Drop Coffee Roasters, Stockholm (source: kinfolk.com)

Hot beverages and cold weather are a natural pairing. Coffee first appeared in Scandinavia in 1674 by way of Sweden, but wasn’t widely available (read: cheap enough for mass consumption) until the middle of the 19th century. Then, Scandinavian coffee culture exploded. Northern Europe’s love for coffee continues to this day: Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark took spots 1, 2, 5, and 6 in a 2014 ranking of worldwide coffee consumption per capita. Coffee breaks are intimately cultural for Scandinavians. Swedes take fika (a daily social coffee break featuring both food and drink; used as both a verb and a noun), while Danes embrace hygge (a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life; this usually correlates with “cup-of-coffee conversation”). To Scandinavians, is regional pride. Coffee culture is an afterthought: coffee is culture.

It’s no surprise, then, that another Scandinavian pride point – design culture – has impacted coffee culture. Like its Japanese cousin, Scandinavian design emphasizes minimalism and functionality through form. Northern European design differentiates itself by also incorporating ergonomic research (ex. Electrolux, Hoganas) and democratic pricing models (ex. Ikea, H&M) into the finished product, creating objects that can literally be accessed by all. Scandinavia has indeed produced some famous coffee makers – the Wilfa Precision, for example – but perhaps the region’s greatest contributions to worldwide coffee culture design are the fixtures and furnishings that have come to define the trendy urban coffee shop.   

First up: the mugs. I’ll keep this short and sweet and let the photos do the talking. Both the Aida “ENSO Mug with handle” (left) and Höganäs “coffee cup” (right) are best described as modern interpretations of the stereotypical coffee mug. Unconventional handles, smooth color palettes, and organic curves define these as typically modern. The “Mug with handle” won a 2016 German Design Award.

Now, the interiors: entire textbooks have been written about Scandinavian interior design. The gist of it is a smart, minimal take on rooms defined by their core elements. Since the first wave of Scandinavian design craze took the world by storm at the 1939 World’s Fair, the Northern European take on modernity has transcended its regional origins and become a global view of everything cutting-edge. Imagine your favorite “trendy”, “hipster” coffee shop, and see how many of the following characteristically-Scandinavian boxes it checks:

       - White walls emphasized by neutral colors elsewhere
       - Strong natural lighting
       - Wooden furniture accents, specifically on chairs and countertops
       - Asymmetric or experimental furniture
       - Minimal decoration, especially on walls
       - Clean architectural lines

In practice, these traits create an open and natural environment that feels connected to nature. You may like faintly studious environment created by the simple, functional, and organic design details. Or, maybe you just like the way glass lightwells frame your #morningcoffee. One thing’s for certain: from Stockholm to Tokyo to Rome, if you’ve visited a boutique coffee shop, you’ve experienced Scandinavia’s impact on the coffee ritual.


The world-famous "La Casa del Caffe" Tazza d'Oro, Rome, Italy

The world-famous "La Casa del Caffe" Tazza d'Oro, Rome, Italy

In Japan, coffee culture is ritual. In Scandinavia, coffee culture is culture.

In Italy, coffee culture is life.

The Port of Venice was one of the first coffee importers on the European continent. Coffee beans were first brought to the city in 1570 by Italian botanist Prospero Alpini. By 1638, the city’s first retail coffeehouses were open for business. Original Italian roasts almost certainly tasted like Turkish and Ethiopian preparations, reflecting the beans’ origins. Only later would Italian espresso coffee develop its character.

By the end of the 19th century, espresso had become the coffee of choice for Italian consumers. In 1891, Pellegrino Artusi’s “La scienza in cucina” (considered by many to be the definitive Italian cookbook) even codified a specific morning routine that dictated certain hot drinks at certain times to insure a properly Italian start to the day. Even over 120 years later, ordering a cappuccino after 10am is considered a cultural affront.

Victoria Arduino espresso advertising poster, circa 1920's (source:  smithsonianmag.com )

Victoria Arduino espresso advertising poster, circa 1920's (source: smithsonianmag.com)

Italian coffee culture boomed following World War I, when millions of Italian servicemen returned home after years of daily coffee rations. Recent innovations in steam-pump automated espressodemocratized the medium, making it cheaper and more quickly available for those without the leisure of luxuriously-long coffee breaks. Espresso culture gathered steam throughout the 20th century, and by 1998, Italy had both legally-codified definitions ofespresso and a National Espresso Institute to “safeguard [their] quality”. Modern-day specialty espresso has its roots entirely within Italian coffee culture, and takes everything from processes to nomenclature from the Boot. Just imagine a visit to Starbucks without baristacappuccinocaffeAmericanolattemocha, orventi: in 2015, Italy’s coffee culture has become the world’s.

As the origin of espresso, it won’t surprise you that Italian companies produce the world’s finest espresso machines; and as the home of the world’s luxury automobile industry, Italian designers have a long history of making innovation beautiful. Italian design research – guided by the omnipresence of espresso culture – has in turn produced objects that are functionally and aesthetically magnificent. These products emphasize the sensory nature of the espresso ritual while creating what is perhaps the ultimate cup of coffee.


"La moka express" coffee pot (Bialetti, 1933)

"La moka express" coffee pot (Bialetti, 1933)

"GS" series  espresso  machine (La Marzocco, 1970)

"GS" series espresso machine (La Marzocco, 1970)

 Bialetti’s “La moka express” coffee pot (1933) is a perfect example: its octagonal base diffuses heat quickly while producing authentic steam espresso at home in a beautifully-understated pot. Compared to the mass and expense of a commercial espresso machine, “La moka” was a revolution when introduced. The “GS” by La Marzocca (1970) inspired a similar revolution. Its dual-boilers granted baristas unprecedented flexibility to respond to varied customer orders, and the GS-series’ bright angular shell is a testament to 1970’s Space Age design. GS-series machines were behind the counter at the opening of the original Seattle Starbucks, and retrofitted models machines are still in commercial use today, close to 50 years after their creation.  

In the present, Italy continues to produce world-beating artifacts of coffee culture. The Noua Simonelli “Victoria Arduino Black Eagle” (2013) is the most precise espresso machine ever produced. The Black Eagle is superb as a marvel of controls engineering alone: just think of the physics required to get variable water temperature and variable density grounds to produce consistent “beverage mass” with a margin of error of less than one gram. There are 29.57 grams in a US fluid ounce. Your 16oz grande latte is consistent within 0.2% - in other words, science made your familiar morning coffee break. The 388 Black Eagle sets standards for espresso quality and is used in the annual World Barista Championships, yet the machine is far from sterile. Its low profile was designed to allow conversation between baristas and customers, and its curved metallic shell evokes the body lines of classic racing cars more than precision instruments. The machine’s dainty legs even make its space-age front look vaguely whimsical, like the landers of a vintage cartoon rocket. In essence, Italian designers have made a laser-targeting system look friendly – and oh yeah, pour great espresso. Italians have made coffee culture a religion: the gorgeous and functional Black Eagle machine is as fitting a cathedral as any.


So there you have it: the methods, the atmosphere, the vocabulary, the machines, and the design elements that tie it all together. Japanese pour-over personalization, Scandinavian functional minimalism, and Italian design innovation are responsible for the appeal of the modern coffeehouse. The contributions of all three countries create an experience that, when reinforced by the slight head-buzz of a strong cuppa joe, keep me (and the millions who have made specialty coffee an estimated $26.4 billion industry in the US alone) coming back for more. Pretty good for some burnt ground beans.


AS RAKESTRAW | The personal site of Alex Rakestraw.