The Colorful Coffee Design Life of Elizabeth Chai
Design Director at La Marzocco USA, Elizabeth Chai fell in love with the world of coffee via working from, and sipping Americanos at, the various cafes in her Atlanta neighborhood. As her love blossomed and grew, she made the conscious decision to dedicate her design work to the industry. Since then, she has created a career out of crafting eye-catching art for cafes, roasters, coffee-centric events, and most recently, the lauded Italian espresso machine maker. She chatted with us all about how this came to be, gathering inspirations from 60s and 70s mod and psychedelic art, and how else she makes sure to connect and create community (along with art) in the coffee world.
All photography by Reed McCoy (www.cordial.works)
Can you tell us how you got into design, and coffee, then into combining the two?
In my early years as a freelance graphic designer (in the early 2000s), I was heavily involved in the music industry doing concert promotion and album artwork. I pretty much spent all my time in various local coffee shops working on my laptop, doing design and illustration projects, drinking coconut Americanos, and French press coffee. Being an enthusiastic coffee consumer, and treating the coffee shop as my 'third space' really put me in the right place when the Third Wave was forming. I started learning about single-origin coffees, pour-over, and that different coffees taste different! I was also becoming friends with baristas in all the shops I frequented regularly (daily). Eventually this led to me doing some freelance design projects for my favorite coffee shop in Atlanta: Octane Coffee, which then led to a design job at Octane, which THEN led to me completely falling for coffee — so much so, that I decided to devote my design career exclusively to contribute to the coffee industry. I packed my bags, and headed to the PNW, where I knew I would encounter many opportunities to exercise my design skills, and experience in the coffee industry.
Do you remember the first project you created combining coffee and design?
I was asked to create a special limited-edition letterpress poster to be given as a holiday gift to the staff of Octane Coffee, in December 2012. I was so excited to use my knowledge as an enthusiast to illustrate a lot of coffee gear specific to each Octane location. I designed it to be flipped 180º to show different coffee gear for each location (Grant Park vs. Westside). We letterpress printed just 75 of these posters, and I hand numbered and signed all of them. I was so excited to do this project for my favorite cafe, that I am pretty sure I pulled an all-nighter and did it in just one night. You can view it here.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I am a bit infatuated with bold graphical patterns, 60s mod Op art, 70s psychedelia, bright and loud colors, and retro styling. I gravitate to warm colors like red, orange, yellow, and pink. I'd like to think that makes sense, because I have a very earnest and lively personality — a lot of heart and passionate energy towards the things I care about. This even carries over into the way I decorate my home, and my wardrobe (which is about 99% brightly colored vintage dresses). For a good portion of my adult life, I've looked to the Mary Tyler Moore Show for my personal and style inspiration. Her character on the show, navigating life as a single career-woman getting a fresh start in a new city, reminds me a lot of myself as I navigate who I am in both life and work. I also love the moments when Mary's door is open to neighbors and guests to come in for a cup of coffee — the sitcom ran between 1970 and 1977, and it is so neat to watch her style and decor change throughout the seasons. She serves Chemex to guests in her home, and every time I re-watch the show I appreciate how simple and routine it was to serve coffee to a guest.
What about the coffee world inspires you in your design work?
It has always been important for me to know that I'm contributing to impacting the coffee industry in a positive way, using a skill set that has both been honed and developed for years, as well as something that I have been gifted with. It gives me a tremendous amount of purpose in my work, and that is the thing that keeps me going. I actually made the decision to only work on coffee design projects when I moved to Portland in 2015, and I have only accepted ONE "non" coffee project since that time (although that client, Photon - a photo and video agency - came to me after seeing the design work I did for Junior's Roasted Coffee).
Your work includes photography as well! Can you tell us more about how you incorporate your passion for photography into your coffee and design career?
I've been a photographer for as long as I can remember. I used to photograph concerts, band portraits, even weddings. Eventually Instagram came on the scene and I signed up for an account (in 2010!?) as a "for-fun" thing. I didn't know what it would turn into...I guess none of us knew! But, over the years my Instagram account has really become a creative outlet for me as photographer and "coffee traveler," — a place that I've enjoyed cataloging my travels discovering coffee all over the world — while keeping it as a space for me to enthusiastically share who I am and what I love. I have also been able to use my passion for photography in my work, whether it is product photography, events, or (probably my favorite) taking photos of barista and coffee brewing competitions for Sprudge.
You recently transitioned from years as a freelance designer, to your current position as Design Director at La Marzocco USA. How have you made sure to hold on to your unique creative voice now that you are no longer working for yourself?
Oh, I am SO fortunate to work for a company that encourages me to be myself, and trusts the decisions I make. Because I have experience working for a branding agency (Matchstic in Atlanta) I have a good understanding of when to strictly stay on-brand, and when I can take the opportunity to be playful. In my last couple of years working with La Marzocco USA, I've been given unique opportunities and challenges, like designing our Specialty Coffee Expo and New York Coffee Festival booths and doing set design for our coffee competition tour, "Crush the Rush." I work with a small but incredible Marketing team and we all come together to make these things happen. I've discovered that I really enjoy being a creative director and designer for themed events and spaces. You can view many of my design projects at www.chai.coffee.
Outside of your work as a designer, you also host coffee-centric events, including the recent “Coffee Clarity” series. Can you tell us more about these events, how they came to be, and why they are important for the coffee community?
I organized dozens of independent coffee events in Portland between 2017 and 2019, such as latte art throw downs, and brewing competitions, but for years I had been wanting to do a "Creative Mornings for Coffee People." I was part of the Creative Mornings ATL planning team when I lived there, and felt the coffee scene could benefit from having something inspiring and simple — something to grow the coffee community and build camaraderie, and offering a space where coffee professionals would be treated like professionals. In 2019 I started Coffee Clarity with my friend and colleague, Holly Geber. Holly really became the backbone of making Coffee Clarity a reality. Together we brainstormed topics and potential speakers, venues, and even catering ideas. Holly is the one who organized these events which freed me up to design promotional materials, and market the events. We received a generous sponsorship from Pacific Foods, which enabled us to put on the first three events, and we are planning on doing more in the 2020 season and beyond.
You’ve traveled the world to drink coffee, and attend coffee events! We’d love to know what some of your favorite spots, or coffee moments, have been in the locations you have visited.
Yes, when I travel anywhere, food and coffee is all I'm really interested in exploring! I would say some of my favorite and most notable coffee experiences have been at:
The Coffee Collective (Jægersborggade) in Copenhagen, Denmark
La Fontaine de Belleville in Paris
Customs Brew Bar in Wellington, New Zealand
Felix Coffee in NYC
Metric Coffee in Chicago
Bartavelle Coffee & Wine in Berkeley
Go get em tiger in LA
Cat & Cloud Coffee in Santa Cruz
These are some of my favorite cafes in cities I have lived:
In Atlanta: Spiller Park, Taproom, East Pole, and Muchacho
In Portland: Heart Roasters, Good Coffee, PushXPull, Upper Left, Guilder
In Seattle: La Marzocco Cafe, Watson's Counter, Fulcrum Coffee, Elm Coffee
What does your daily coffee routine look like?
I usually start my day with drip coffee (super easy on the Ratio!) I fill half the water tank, toss 40g of ground coffee in a Kalita filter with the ceramic pour-over. That gives me a couple of mugs worth to nurse throughout my morning. In the afternoon I usually have espresso, either a cortado or a cappuccino, made with my La Marzocco Linea Mini. On the weekends I'll often have my friend Gabby over for what we call "Nonjudgmental Coffee." Gabby works for Red Fox — a green coffee importing company — and this means her entire job is sensory evaluation, often tasting coffee with a spoon ("cupping" coffee). We thought it would be funny to drink coffee from a mug rather than a cupping spoon, and NOT talk about the tasting notes, or comment on the roast levels. We just enjoy each other’s company like normal people! Haha. My Ratio brewer is also perfect for this, because I can prepare a pot of coffee for us to enjoy, and we don't get wrapped up in the details of preparing it like nerdy industry people. I love how it just feels natural to brew a pot of coffee to enjoy with a friend, just like on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
What design projects, and cups of coffee, are you most looking forward to in 2020?
I am already in the middle of some big projects for La Marzocco USA — planning for the upcoming Specialty Coffee Expo that will be held in Portland in April! I have been in the middle of selecting our color palette and designing some special illustrations (and giveaway swag) that will fit with our theme for the event. I can't reveal what that is yet, but it will be memorable and colorful. :)
I'm also super excited about the Coffee Clarity events I'll be doing with Holly in Portland, the return of a Coffee Book Club (Portland and Seattle editions), and some personal art projects that I am working on. My plan is to have an art show of my personal works using a variety of new media, toward the end of 2020.
Photography by Reed McCoy (www.cordial.works)