That modern new apartment building you see at the corner of West Division Street and North Ashland Avenue? It’s home to Chicago’s newest Intelligentsia cafe.
Designed by Danny Wicke of noted Chicago architecture firm Wheeler Kearns Architects, the space stands in tall contrast to the more historic architecture of neighboring buildings. The intentionally abstract placement of exterior windows mirrors the motion of the street traffic of its location, the Polonia Triangle (also called “Polish Triangle” by many locals).
I caught up with Stephen Morrissey, director of communications, and Doug Zell, one of company’s founders, on opening day for the Wicker Park café. I asked Morrissey how the surrounding community has responded to the unique structure. He quipped, “There’s a healthy conversation about the building.”
What coffee drinkers may not notice, if approaching from the north or the east, is the 100-foot-tall painting called Scorza (Italian for bark or skin) on the west-facing side. As the first retail tenant in the building, Intelligenstia was given the opportunity to decide how to use that enormous display space. They decided against putting up larger-than-life advertising. Instead, the company commissioned Chicago artist Antonia Contro to create a new work to be featured at what is likely to be the last café the company opens in the city.
Quoth Morrissey, “Coffee rhetoric is so diluted because it’s so homogenized. Everyone does ‘quality;’ everyone does ‘fresh roasted.’ So, we did this.”
The interior of the space is striking in its minimalism: the front is all windows, with a door along Division Street. The interior features one long table that can seat 10 customers, but you won’t find any of the typical coffeehouse two-top or four-top table and chair groupings here. To optimize how customers use the space, a low banquette runs along the window and the eastern wall. Small, lightweight movable blocks in “Intelligenstia Red” serve multiple functions.
“These colored blocks are intended for our customers to use however they want to. They can use them to sit on, to put their laptops on. If they are a large group they can move them all together,” said Morrissey. Chicago coffee fans may have seen similar modular pieces at the company’s Logan Square cafe, in a more sea-like blue hue.
The uncluttered interior design features many elements meant to let coffee take center stage. However, pre-opening images of the space left a lot to the imagination. Morrisey admitted, “If you see it empty, it can seem a touch sterile.”
With residential units above and bus and CTA lines on the triangle, the café will not be empty often.
Doug Zell, co-founder of Intelligentsia, said, “Given the amount of seating, it actually feels cozy when there’s a few people here, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded when there’s more. There’s a nice balance between warmer and cooler materials.”
Those materials include the quartz countertop and the Douglas Fir bar facade. And though they’re from the same raw material, the white-vinegar-stained fir walls provide a nice contrast to the movable red blocks and the sleek black banquettes, large table, and retail displays.
The bar, designed by Intelligentsia baristas, shows off the gleaming chrome of three Modbar single-cup brewing stations and a shiny Intelligentsia Red La Marzocco Strada EP for making espresso. The delectable pastries near the register come from Floriole, an Intelligentsia wholesale partner since 2013.
Unique to this location are the six taps behind the bar. Drew Larson, the former beverage director at Hopleaf, helped design the system.
Morrissey said, “I’m Irish and it’s very common in Europe for cafes to have wine or beer. We were thinking about how if you want to go for a quiet drink and you don’t want to go to a pub, your options are your house or a hotel lobby. If someone wants to go to a pub, there are lots of options on this street. We’re not looking to steal that customer. We’re looking to create something else.”
The idea is to showcase the terroir of “culinary coffee” alongside craft beers for the public. In partnership with the award-winning blog Good Beer Hunting, Intellegentsia has already hosted an Uppers and Downers event to do just that in the space. Michael Kiser, founder of that blog, commented that “…we were able to produce four different coffees for 50 people in about a half hour—a true testament to the efficiency of the service space.”
For now, the taps are only being used for serving up sparkling teas such as Golden Needles and Iron Goddess of Mercy, which were served opening day from the company’s brand of teas, Kilogram, and will soon also feature sparkling fruit sodas from Seasons Soda. Once the necessary permits have been granted, this location will also offer a rotating selection of beers, hard ciders, and meads. If this is truly Intelligentsia’s last retail splash in its hometown of Chicago, it’s a grand one.
Jenny Neill is a Sprudge contributor based in Seattle. She writes about beverage and travel at jennyneill.com. Read more Jenny Neill on Sprudge here.
All photos by Mike Russell of MikeRussellFoto.