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Coffee cups from Alfred in Los Angeles.
Coffee cups from Alfred in Los Angeles.
Mary Costa

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How Disposable Coffee Cup Design Became High Art

Once an afterthought, the portable coffee cup has become a piece of art.

Coffee shops have long been synonymous with embracing art and the bleeding edge of culture. And following the rise in prominence of third wave coffee across the country over the past decade, cafes have morphed from ho-hum poetry reading hubs for the granola set into bastions of sleek (and often sexy) design. Swaddling guests in a warm caffeine cocoon, a good coffee outpost can not only be an aesthetic delight, but feel like a physical and mental incubator for creativity.

While well-crafted coffee obviously plays a role in pepping up one’s mind to Speed Racer levels, much of a shop’s success now lies in aesthetic considerations. A well-curated café—whether outfitted with earthy, reclaimed wood countertops or a holistic mid-century modern vibe—encourages not only jittery freelancers to set up shop with their laptops, but invites gaggles of girlfriends to linger over drippy iced lattes, as is especially the case with the design-forward looks at Alfred Coffee locations in Los Angeles. Specialty coffee’s allure aside, a shop’s ability to attract guests through highly thought out design is often what separates one cafe from another.

Top: Inside Los Angeles' Alfred in the Alley, photo by Elizabeth Daniels. Bottom: Alfred coffee cups by Mary Costa.

Specialty coffee’s allure aside, a shop’s ability to attract guests through highly thought out design is often what separates one cafe from another.

With so much attention paid to creating a visually palatable coffee shop experience, it was only a matter of time before businesses started turning their attention to the design of their top export: the disposable coffee cup. Cafes have recently started treating these take away containers as portable canvases, allowing local artists to doodle and paint, while encouraging patrons to rethink the function of what has long been considered a throwaway product.

"Before about 18 months ago, it was a rarity [in the U.S.] for places to do interesting cups, and especially cups that were from the café itself instead of from the bean supplier," said artist Henry Hargreaves, whose Instagram account, Coffee Cups of The World, has documented the growing trend over the past year. "Five Leaves in Greenpoint, Brooklyn started it all off for me. When I got my cup, I really felt like I got my $4 worth. It was this beautiful little piece of artwork on it. Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of what was in my hand. Also, when I finished the coffee I didn’t really want to throw it away because it was so nice."

The collection is a visual stunner, with designs ranging from a sunset-colored cup emblazoned with a prancing white elephant from Elephant Grounds in Hong Kong, to a minimalist black-and-white watercolor of a man in a luchador mask from Coffee Libre in Seoul. The cups have attracted ample amounts of attention, gaining the account 16,000 followers and cup submissions that span from São Paulo, Brazil to Saint Jean de Luz, France.

Inside Los Angeles' Dinosaur Coffee and Blue Bottle (West Hollywood), photos by Elizabeth Daniels and Wonho Frank Lee, respectively.

In cities across the world, the coffee cup has now become a calling card.

And many of these next generation vessels are stamped with whimsical images (roosters, ships, crickets and font-happy logos, to name a few) that walk a fine line between rustic, DIY appeal and an obvious dedication to meticulous detail. "Our coffee is treated with hands-on reverenced," these cups seems to say, "and so are their paper chalices."

Sometimes they’re inked with cheeky puns or cheerful pick-me-ups, adding fuel to the caffeine fire toward a day full of either snark or goodwill, respectively. Other times, the commitment to theme becomes so intricate that each size cup is decorated with a different related illustration. At Pelican House in Brighton, England, each of shop’s five cup sizes reveals a different stage of a baby pelican hatching from its shell.

"[Coffee cup art] allows cafes to really forge their own identity, and the designed cups are a really good way for them to put a stamp on their product," notes Hargreaves. "I think that’s the thing about coffee is that it’s a little bit rock ‘n roll. It kind of breaks the tradition of design so that people can go off the grid. It’s not about being restrictive."

Well-healed coffee cups are nothing new in both Australia and Hargreaves’ home country of New Zealand, where design and coffee have long intertwined. In these café-centric countries, cups often provide a way for young up-and-coming artists to flex their creative muscles in a highly public forum, while also providing illustrators from untapped creative backgrounds—like tattooists and graffiti artists—a new medium with which to experiment.

Photos from Instagram/CoffeeCupsofTheWorld

Out of all the cities in the world, Hargreaves strongly contends that Melbourne is leading the pack.

"Melbourne is the greatest coffee cup city in the world. We did some prints earlier this year illustrating the best coffee cups from different major cities, and in Melbourne, there were more than 50 different designs."

One particular Australian cup line, BioPack, is endeavoring to create biodegradable vessels that are not only beautiful, but send a message. Working in tandem with dozens of artists who are committed to promoting positive environmental themes, the company aims to "highlight the need for sustainable choice ... in consumable culture and give artists the power to spread this message."

"Melbourne is the greatest coffee cup city in the world."

The visually arresting—and moving—line of cups has been readily embraced by coffee shops across the country. Among the collection’s many gems, a swirling, marbled cup which mimics the boundaries of land and sea is a dreamy stunner, while a cup with a perky, plumed bird speaks to the country’s swath of flora and fauna.

Photos from Instagram/CoffeeCupsofTheWorld

Of course, this isn’t the only instance of museum-worthy coffee cups doubling as a statement on consumerism. Gwendolyn Leech garnered international acclaim in 2013 after painting and drawing on her used coffee cups as a way to upcycle the take out containers. From New York streetscapes to sunflowers, Leech’s cups—which are all labeled with the date, location, occasion, and beverage consumed so that each one "becomes a record of a social moment"—now number over 1,000 and have been displayed at galleries across the globe, even inspiring a line of reusable ceramic versions marketed by Anthropologie.

Beautiful designed coffee cups may seem like a shift that’s subtle in practice, but the movement is monumental in its implications for how artists, designers and consumers relate to once overlooked, day-to-day products.

Hargreaves believes the movement is just getting started. "I think we’re going to see more of this. Instead of being a thing that people just throw away, coffee cups can become something they might want to keep. They’ll have a meaning beyond just a vessel to put a drink in your belly."

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