Designing Britain Home Page OTC graphic title
  Oral testimony and the Interpretation of the Crafts
  Oral History
  Themes
  Picassoettes
Birth of coffee bars
Picassoettes in coffee bars
Lyons Corner House
Golden Egg Restaurants
  Resources
  Biographies
Other Images
Glossary
Reading
  Assignment
  Image Archive
  Author
  Home
 

Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > Oral testimony and the Interpretation of the Crafts > Themes > Birth of coffee bars
 
THE BIRTH OF THE COFFEE BARS:

William Newland's understanding of the birth of the London coffee bar is closely associated with the machine that made the coffee:
 
click here to hear audio Listen to audio
The English started going for holidays abroad and not in a big way but to Italy and France after the war and they found this lovely coffee, and English coffee was absolutely bloody terrible and the first coffee bars started with this Gaggia machine in Hyde Park or somewhere...1 ²
Copyright the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts, 2002.
 
It appears that the coffee bar was linked with a sense of cosmopolitan style, 'foreign-ness' and the availability of good coffee. This availability was the result of Achille Gaggia's invention of the espresso maker in Milan in 1948, (and its subsequent importation to Britain in 1952). The explosion of coffee bars in the capital corresponds exactly with the importation of the Gaggia espresso machines.
 
Moka-Ris coffee bar interior. Back-lit plates by Newland, Hine and Vergette. Gaggia coffee machine on left. OTC00020 Moka-Ris coffee bar interior. Back-lit plates by Newland, Hine and Vergette. Gaggia coffee machine on left.

Click to view larger image View larger image
 
In their book, Coffee Makers, 300 years of art and design, Edward and Jean Bramah offer an insight in to who the people were who opened the coffee bars:
 
The first one opened in Soho where there was a substantial foreign population to appreciate it, and it was an instant sensational success. By 1960 there were over two thousand coffee bars in Britain, five hundred in London alone. The most interesting feature of the coffee bar phenomenon was that it owed practically nothing to the catering trade. The people who opened them were architects, antique dealers, wine merchants, interior decorators, sculptors, dentists and film stars. The fact that English caterers refused to have anything to do with espresso in its early days proved to be a good thing because the outsiders created a new and badly needed class of café with clean, modern décor and good coffee and food at reasonable prices. 2
 
Despite the fact that the Bramahs offer no evidence of these assertions, a letter to Catering and Hotelkeeper magazine in 1953 offers an important insight in to the attitude of the 'trade' to the new coffee bars. Written by J.C. Morris, Chairman of the Catering Equipment Manufacturers Association, and headlined, 'Making a Good Cup of Coffee', it outlines his organisation's objections to overt press coverage of the newly imported Gaggia coffee machines:
 
You will, we are sure, agree that the only possible definition of a good cup of coffee is 'the way you like it'. In this country all reputable caterers take pride in serving coffee made to their customer's taste, and they have been very efficiently backed by the catering equipment trade which produces coffee-making apparatus of types and designs to suit every possible set of circumstances. In view of this it is surprising that one of our popular daily papers should have devoted considerable space during the last few weeks to publicizing the importation of coffee machines from Italy. While discriminating caterers will, we know, continue to rely upon the excellent service given by the British catering equipment trade, newspaper articles of the kind described are liable to give a misleading impression to the public.3
 
The British catering trade were clearly concerned by this incursion on their home territory by this foreign machine and the coffee bar phenomenon meant they were right to be concerned. The point of the Gaggia machine was that it made good coffee in individual cups for the customer. For those used to 'Camp' coffee, the Gaggia offered a superior beverage and was the catalyst for the coffee bar phenomenon.
 
Activity:

Write 500 words in response to the following activity:

Look at the Gaggia advertisement on the Reading list page. Appearing in the same journal as the above letter of complaint, how is it selling itself to the reader? What is the selling point that the advert is trying to get across?
 
Youth Culture

Whilst the thrust of this website is the significance in design terms of the coffee bars, the importance of the coffee bar clientele and youth culture cannot be ignored. As you will see in the section on The Lyons Corner House, whilst the adults had the tea shop and the public house, there wasn't anywhere the teenager was made to feel at home. The coffee bar seems to have filled that gap in the catering market.

It is also important to ask whether the clientele of the coffee bars affected the design or vice versa. In her article on the planning of coffee bars in the 1955 feature on London Coffee Bars in the journal Architecture and Building, Helen Low argued that 'the type of clientele which is expected has to be considered before laying out each bar'.4 She goes on to say that coffee bars in business areas where customers will be men will demand a quick service, whilst in a shopping district women will be the customers and therefore more seating will be needed.
It also appears that coffee bars had a different clientele at night to that during the day. Consequently, the importance of music is an issue of some importance. On the website of the musician, Joe Moretti, he devotes several pages to the 2i's coffee bar in Old Compton Street, where musicians such as Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele were discovered and where Lonnie Donegan, Adam Faith, Joe Brown and Hank Marvin all played.
 
Activity:

Write 500 words in response to one of the following activities:


• Try to see one of the movies listed on the Reading list page. What is the role of the coffee bar in these movies? Do they evoke the coffee bar as described by Paul Reilly in his article 'London Coffee Bars', or as described on Joe Moretti's website?
• Read the first chapter of Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes. How are the coffee bars and the Gaggia machine described?
 
Footnotes:
1. NEVAC, AC118side1, (00:31:37 onwards), audio recording of William Newland, 1994.
2. Edward and Jean Bramah, Coffee Makers, 300 years of art and design, Quiller Press, 1989, p.144.
3. Morris, J.C. Catering and Hotelkeeper magazine, October 10 1953, p.29.
4. Helen Low in Architecture and Building, March 1955, p.94.
 
Top