Today This Thing We Call Coffee (substitute “third wave” or “craft coffee” or whatever nonsense marketingspeak one prefers here) seems to have discovered a new toy. It’s called design. Although around since the first coffee retailer opened in Damascus in 1530, lately design has become a rather acutely faddish obsession that has permeated café design, espresso machine design, and even the package design of retail coffee bags.
So much so, the coffee industry has lately given off the impression that it’s become bored or satiated (if not both) with its prior focus on coffee quality. Evidence of that has already started to come out in the cup. We’ve noticed some coffee bars missing the point that while we love great design and ambiance from our best restaurants, it’s not why we primarily want to eat there.
It’s not hard to see how we got here. Today’s Internet is fueled by a Pinterest- and Instagram-inspired obsession with superficial looks, celebrating form over function. Social sharing, mainstream coverage, and Kickstarter hype have all elevated interest in coffee accoutrement based on visuals rather than performance. After all, who wants to dig into the gritty details when you can look at a pretty infographic?
As with today’s world of pop celebrities, elaborate visuals and outrageous price tags — rather than talent — are what capture the fickle attention spans of layman consumers. Like everything else, perhaps it isn’t surprising that quality coffee is giving in to the temptations of Kim Kardashian’s asp. (You see what we did there.)
This isn’t to understate the many virtues of good design, not all of which are visual decoration. Design is a way of bringing art into the everyday things of life, but it is also a means of eliminating the friction and the senseless from how things work.
Nor am I a stranger to the values of design. My father is a retired commercial artist and designer of some 45 years, and long ago I even pulled a stint as a graphic designer whose work appeared in the displays of a national chain of department stores. While I see design as a very useful tool, I stop well short of treating it as a religion.
Because one man’s Apple logo sticker on the rear of their vehicle is another man’s Jesus fish. There are those who so subscribe to the “Better Life Through Design” mantra, they believe the crisis in Gaza could be averted if only someone designed an Israeli wall that was user-friendly enough.
When coffee’s current love affair with design becomes this noticeable, it borders on religion. As with all religions, when the object of its focused attention drifts from its original premise, things can get ugly.
notNeutral Cappuccino Cups
Bringing the high-minded topic of coffee and design down to the level of cups, the folks at notNeutral recently reached out to us to pay a closer look at their coffee line. In the 11+ years that CoffeeRatings.com has been posting formal coffee and café reviews, many other blogs and Web sites picked up on the habit of noting espresso machines and other brewing equipment. But for whatever reasons, we still haven’t found any other online coffee review resources to date that have been logging cups unless they’re made as custom one-off designs.
So as a CoffeeRatings.com first, what do we look for in coffee cups? Our 2007 post citing the Espresso Italiano Tasting manual outlines some of the key qualities. But the primary objective is this: does it enhance my coffee drinking experience?
Rios Clementi Hale Studios, an award-winning multidisciplinary L.A. design firm, founded notNeutral as something of a retail consumer arm for their designs. They do a lot of commercial buildings, parks, water projects, train stations, homes, and landscaping, and through notNeutral they get to do pillows, rugs, furnishings, and housewares such as coffee cups.
De rigueur of many designers today, they make overtures to sustainability and “green living,” but it’s not heavy-handed. One of our pet peeves is the hypocrisy of some retailers and media properties that are devoted to the concept of saving the planet by consuming more things (instead of, say, picking something up from a garage sale or a second-hand store).
notNeutral’s coffee home page opens to a photo of their cups beneath the group head of a Modbar, today’s patron saint of form-over-function in coffee, reenforcing design-aware aesthetics. We tested their cappuccino cups since we have collected dozens of espresso cups from cafés around the world.
First, the white, handled LINO cups. These were the cups they designed in partnership with Intelligentsia. Made in Bangladesh, they have good heft and a relatively compact size: filled to the rim, they can hold up to 6-oz/175ml. Design-wise, they clearly take on a modernization of the ACF or Nuova Point classics.
There are a lot of curves, including the saucers, with an inverted-dome-like rounded bottom and tapering up the sides of the cup: there are no edges inside. The handles are distinctive — sticking out in a wider loop, but cleverly flush to the top edge of the cup, allowing the coffee drinker to place their thumb over the top.
We also checked out their black matte, no-handle MENO cups. These suggest the form and function of more elegant Japanese-style tea cups. Made in Sri Lanka, they are also curved inside with no edges — although not as rounded as the LINO cups. The longer basin also means it can hold up to 7-oz/200ml of liquid to the rim (despite their product graphic to the contrary).
The MINOs have a glaze on the matte finish, as these cups are meant to be handled to experience any heat within them. Without the handle, of course, drinking requires you to rotate your hand further back to angle it when you bring it to your mouth: something you’re either used to or will have to accommodate.
We wouldn’t say the LINO and MINO cups are our absolute favorite cappuccino cups. With all its comparatively under-designed flaws, the classic ACF M66 5.5-oz/150ml tulip cup is still something of a sentimental favorite — even if they no longer make them and they’re increasingly hard to come by. But both the LINO and MINO cups are real good — very good. They are thought out in detail, modern, attractive, and also (and here’s the important part) quite functional at what they’re supposed to do. We prefer them over the many modern ACF replacement knockoffs that have appeared since ACF’s demise — such as Cremaware or those from Espresso Parts.
We also asked Hannah Bartholomew Block, who runs noNeutral’s coffee division, a few questions about these cups.
Q & A with Hannah Block of notNeutral
CoffeeRatings.com: With the LINO cups, some design objectives are clear – such as ensuring that the handle is flush with the rim, allowing the user to place their thumb comfortably across the top of the cup when they bring it to their lips. What design problems/solutions were you seeking to address with the LINO cups?
notNeutral: A lot of thought went into that handle. We tried a variety of forms that extended from the cup in different ways, but the final shape provided the most control for the barista and the most comfort for the user. Our design team considered the entire sensory experience of drinking coffee: the diameter of the cup was kept wide so drinker could enjoy the aroma, not just the taste of the espresso. The cup walls are thinnest at the lip for the best mouthfeel, and thickest at the bottom to retain heat. The bottom of the cup is rounded for optimal fluid dynamics, making it easier for baristas to pour latte art. Beyond those functional aspects, of course we wanted the cups to look modern, unique, and interesting.
CR: In contrast to the previous question, where do you feel most coffee cups fall short in offering customers a better coffee-drinking experience?
nN: The most important consideration is comfort of the user. Are the cup walls thick enough to protect the user’s hand from heat? Is the handle comfortable and stable to hold? Will the shape of the lip cause coffee to drip down the outside? When you swirl an espresso shot in a demitasse, is it going to slosh over the sides? We consider all these factors when designing or choosing cups for a café.
CR: At CoffeeRatings.com, we’re an odd lot who have also liked using traditional Asian tea cups for brewed coffee service at times: no handles, matte black finish. So in that way, the MENO cups remind us of some classic tea cups. Was the MENO design inspired by those cups?
nN: Yes. We did look at Asian tea cups as precedents. We looked at Japanese ceramic glazes and liked the way the matte black got distressed over time. We also liked the way the dark, non-reflective finish not only drew attention to the graceful cup profile, but also felt warm and satiny to the touch.
CR: Whether inspired by Asian tea cups or not, you’ve clearly labeled your MENO cups as part of your coffee line. Anything about the experience of these cups, or the experience of drinking tea, did you want to carry over with these cups over the traditional cups?
nN: The handle-less cup completely changes the sensory experience of holding and drinking a cup of coffee. There’s a comfort in savoring the warmth of the cup directly in the palm of your hand. That’s a little unexpected for coffee. It makes you reconsider the ritual. We definitely envision MENO crossing over from specialty coffee service to vessels for tea.