A shot of creativity: Ben Crawford shines a light on New Zealand’s best cafe design in Built for Caffeine

Conveniently enough, there are more than a few creative types who tend to believe the best ideas happen outside of work. Ben Crawford, past The Block NZ winner, co-owner of ad agency Libby & Ben, Herald design columnist and committed coffee drinker is one of them, so he decided to write a book—Built for Caffeine—that tells the design stories behind 20 of New Zealand’s coolest cafes. 

“Coffee plays such a big role in the creative scene,” he says. “I don’t know what it is, but you sit outside of your normal life and it gives you a license to think a bit differently.” 

The book, which he did all the writing and photography for, isn’t about the coffee or food, because there’s already a lot of material about that. He wanted a unique angle so he talked to all the owners, architects and designers who created the spaces to find out why they chose to make it look the way it does—and how those ideas can be brought back to residential design (he says the timber wall at Shaky Isles in Kingsland was an inspiration for the wall in his and his sister Libby’s winning house on The Block). 

“Cafes create a sense of community, belonging and communal living. They enable conversations. Provide places to relax. Create meeting spots. Just like a home should.” 

One of the recurring themes was that “a lot of them started off with a brand and went from there”, to the point where you could argue the cafe is basically a brand activation.

“They all had an inspiring vision for what they wanted to create,” he says. 

He points to Kiki Beware, a cafe in Roslyn in Dunedin, as a good example. It’s a “prim and proper housewife during the day, but she likes to get loose and have a few whiskeys at night”, so it’s pure white mixed with skulls and taxidermy. Shaky Isles is another good example, he says, with the Pack Group seeing a gap in the hospitality market for a streetwise, edgy cafe with a bit more personality (it has just opened up a new cafe in the Auckland International Airport). And Cosset in Mt Albert was all about trying to recreate the nana vibe, he says.

In the early days of New Zealand’s coffee culture, he says having good coffee and food was enough of a differentiator. But, as a reflection of the maturing of the market, he doesn’t think that’s enough anymore. Now he says it’s “what is the cafe experience?”

He says he’s had the idea for the book for a couple of years, well before his appearance on The Block. And it’s slowly taken shape, with weekend trips to Auckland cafes and visits to other cafes around the country fitted in around trips home and for business (the agency has just opened an office in Christchurch, where Libby is based). 

“I’ve always gone into cafes and felt at home and relaxed. It leads to thought and creativity. I also do a lot of photography. And I thought it would be quite cool to do a book about cafes and find out why they made the decisions they did.”

Of course, for every quirky, well-designed cafe, there are plenty more generic chains that also seem to be faring pretty well (although some of them are also being forced to evolve their offerings). But the book is about celebrating the smaller businesses that put some effort into creating unique spaces and that ethos led to the decision to work with a smaller, independent, Kiwi-owned publisher, Newton-based Beatnik, which also helped with the book design.

As for the trends he noticed on his travels, he says there’s a more considered approach to design these days, whereas before it may have been ‘let’s do industrial’ and whacking something in there. Upcycling is also very popular and he says it tends to add to the authenticity and create a sense of connection. He points to Supreme’s Customs Brew Bar in Wellington, which used the timber from an old farmhouse on the owners’ land in the cafe kitchen, and C1 in Christchurch, which used the floorboards from its red stickered building in its new cafe in the Post Office across the road. 

He says the whole process has been an enjoyable one and as he is often writing copy for agency clients like Rainbow’s End, Christchurch Airport, the Department of Conservation, Tear Fund, Sudima Hotels and others, he believes it’s important to keep the creative fires burning by doing other projects and meeting interesting people. And trying to tell unique stories about all of these different cafes will be something he can apply to the clients the agency is working with. 

The book is available online, at the big bookstores and, in a novel move, in Freedom Furniture.  

  • We’ve got one copy of Built for Caffeine to give away. So tell us what your favourite cafe is and why. 

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