Your coffee drinking ritual just took an unexpected twist: a side of Chicago design history. Capturing the depth and nuances of the city’s rich design legacy, this coffee bag goes beyond mere brand representation—it celebrates, supports and empowers Chicago’s creative ecosystem one cup at a time. In conversation with Newcity’s design editor, Nick Adam of Span design studio dives into the story behind The Chicago Blend’s packaging. Unraveling the layers of history, emotion and personal connection, he walks us through the challenges of capturing the essence of Chicago in a coffee bag design, the power of coffee in evoking memories, and the collective vision of this initiative that is mindfully roasted by the Metropolis Coffee Company and supports the Design Museum of Chicago. Join us in discovering the tastes, tales and intricacies of the Chicago Blend.
The Chicago Blend’s packaging is, in a way, a visual anthology of Chicago’s rich design heritage. What were the challenges in condensing such a vast history into a single design, and how did you prioritize which elements to include?
Thankfully, the goal was not to create a complete history—more like a taste of it. The challenge in doing this was to draw inspiration, not copy it. For example, Thomas Miller, a legendary Chicago designer created the iconic 7UP package at Goldsholl. While his graphic patterns for the clear soda were beautifully hypnotic dots, our squares that come to represent Chicago’s grid carry the same sense of vibrancy. Looking closer at the squares, the prominent ones denote the locations of Midway (MDW) and O’Hare (ORD) airports. These positions orient the viewer, providing cardinal directions and allowing the right side of the bag to evoke the eastern boundary of Lake Michigan.
The undulating lines of the lake draw inspiration from a couple of other luminaries from Chicago’s design history and formally reference Susan Jackson Keig’s Aspen installation and the photograms György Kepes created after immigrating to Chicago. These details are not expected to be immediately known, but hopefully, they can be felt. There are other things that are slightly more obvious, like the bubbly Picasso-like form. To us, these bubbly forms feel as if they are filled with air. And that’s reminiscent of what coffee does—it adds some pep to your step… or as Rick Valicenti might say, it puts a little air in your tires.
Coffee, as a medium, evokes emotions, memories, and even a sense of place for many. How do you hope the Chicago Blend changes or enhances the coffee-drinking ritual for those who are both familiar and unfamiliar with the city’s legacy?
My hope is that it makes people smile and raise an eyebrow. I think that’s the expression that occurs when you encounter something familiar and something out of the ordinary simultaneously. I hope folks squint their eyes and find something they understand, along with something else that makes them scratch their heads. I hope Chicago sees this as an opportunity to support one of our city’s most important creative nonprofits. Chicago is a city of extremely hardworking and generous people. These qualities make us all highly sought after. People on the coasts love hiring a Chicagoan due to our work ethic, compassion, and ability to invent new things—brownies, Gospel music, the Ferris wheel, skyscrapers, House music, blood banks, spray paint, Kickstarter, and so forth. My hope is that Chicagoans also buy bags and send them to our fellow Chicagoans who now live in other cities. And when those folks receive the bag, I hope they find an element that warms their heart with thoughts of their hometown. In the bigger picture, I hope they consider moving back to Chicago. Come on, the water is great here, and there’s plenty of it.
Each bag purchased contributes directly to funding the Design Museum of Chicago. Can you talk about the collaboration between Span, the Design Museum of Chicago and Metropolis Coffee Company and your collective vision?
The bags are available at Metropolis’ Edgewater café, their factory store, their O’Hare airport location, and their online store. From the purchase of each bag, fifty-percent of the proceeds go toward continuing to fund the Design Museum of Chicago. These funds are of great assistance as the museum is a nonprofit dedicated to producing free, inclusive public programming focused on artists and designers from diverse backgrounds, neighborhoods, and age groups. The Design Museum of Chicago and Metropolis approached me to see if Span was interested in designing a special, artful bag for their upcoming collaborative blend. Since I view DMoC as the design organization that is making the most effort to build community in Chicago, and as I often brew Spice Island and Sawada’s Project X [two roasts that are made by Metropolis], the opportunity was a pleasure to receive. The project began with a vision from Metropolis and DMoC. They wanted a bag that was creative and curious, thinking about the at-home brewing experience and how the bag of coffee is often one of the first things someone interacts with. Instead of creating something overly branded, they aimed to cover it with something artful and curious to infuse creativity into someone’s day. The result is a bag that stimulates the senses and ignites inspiration. In this sense, the bag is much like the product itself—a stimulant.
Beyond the design aspect of The Chicago Blend, I’m curious about the actual coffee. Are you a coffee drinker yourself? If so, how has your personal relationship with coffee influenced or connected with this project?
While I start each day with water, I quickly turn to coffee—preferably, ice-cold and black. I began drinking coffee in my early twenties when I was living above the Brown Elephant in Wicker Park. Northwest on Milwaukee, at Six Corners, the Flat Iron housed Filter. That place was a hub for everyone in the neighborhood. It felt like home; your friends were there, your friends worked there, and you worked there. They had good internet, an in-house roaster, a great veggie burger, and the muffin lady (IYKYK). Seats were aplenty, and the graffiti on the walls wasn’t just a motif; it was an active artifact of the community. I remember the coffee being silky and rich, like drinking unsweetened, earthy chocolate. It was powerfully dark. For me, coffee triggers memories—like quiet Saturday mornings surrounded by flowers at Carver 47 in Kenwood, stopping by Swim Cafe on Chicago Avenue after swimming laps at Eckhart Park, or taking midday walks in Humboldt Park to get a cup from Ryan at C.C. Ferns. Coffee is often discussed as a global narrative, but it also has a local story. During the making of The Chicago Blend, Metropolis hosted a cupping event for everyone at DMoC and Span. It was an opportunity to taste all the different roasts they produce. As we sipped, we shared thoughts on the flavors and memories.
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