Spatial Relations by Rachel Eva Lim


“You can’t serve crap coffee in a beautifully designed masterpiece, and you can’t serve high quality coffee in a place with shitty design.” Johan Damgaard lives and breathes this philosophy at Johan & Nyström, the cafe he co-founded in Stockholm’s hip Södermalm neighborhood in 2004. To him, “Great coffee in a perfectly designed environment is like heaven.”

While coffee’s still the core of his business, Damgaard and a few other Stockholm coffee shop owners acknowledge the effect that great design has on our quality of life. So they’ve harnessed key Swedish design principles to provide patrons with the best overall experience. These include prioritizing functionality over mere aesthetic appeal, engaging customers on an emotional level, incorporating natural materials, and focusing just as much on the little design flourishes as the larger construction process.    

The initial blueprints for Johan & Nyström’s concept store adhered to a “function is God” approach. Damgaard’s primary goal was to ensure that the cafe’s architecture communicated its purpose while providing a pleasant atmosphere. The interior had to allow for an easy flow of movement. It had to house the world’s first integrated AeroPress bar. And it had to regulate the amount of light entering the premises, particularly crucial given dark and dreary Swedish winters that give way to long hours of daylight during brief summer months. 

“We thought about how different materials reflect light and how and where the sunlight entered the space,” Damgaard says. “So we placed lighter materials in the coffee shop’s dark spots, and darker objects where the warm beams of sunlight could reach them.” Balancing the degree of light throughout the cafe ensures a uniformly lit environment, which prevents customers from having to settle for a dingy back corner table when they can’t snag the last seat by the window. Coupled with bright walls—that reflect the light instead of engulfing it—and large windows, Damgaard’s created an ideal spot for patrons to soak up as much mood-boosting Vitamin D as possible. 

Equally important to determining Johan & Nyström’s design was a desire to facilitate an engaging customer experience. Its concept store, where it conducts a range of amateur and professional barista classes, is as much of an education and training center as it is a cafe. 

“We wanted to put on a show for the customers and allow them to see how we prepare their drinks, so we tried to strip the space of all physical barriers and obstacles,” Damgaard says. To do this, they installed an open bar seating area where customers can interact with baristas as they watch their coffee being made. Damgaard likens giving patrons an inside look into the process to inviting them into his kitchen—the heart of his home. Watching expert baristas brew coffee can be hypnotic. And doing away with traditional partitions fosters a sense of intimacy and transparency, allowing cafe visitors to feel like they’re part of the community. Explains Damgaard, “When we highlight these altars where we perform our brewing and cupping rituals, the customers witness our dedication to our craft and want to come back.” 

Another distinctly Swedish design technique is the ample use of natural materials. These organic elements, such as wood, stone, cork, and marble, combine with ruthless editing to create the trademark Swedish minimalist aesthetic that’s simple, clean, and cozy—reminiscent of many Swedish homes. One of the main benefits of this is that it recreates the feeling of being outdoors, and—combined with large insulated windows and neutral walls—amplifies the space by preventing it from feeling too cramped or claustrophobic. For Stockholm locals, who rarely spend long outside in the winter, this is of the utmost importance.

“The Swedes have a long history of working with natural materials, and we made it a priority to use high-quality equipment and really take the time to build things properly,” says Joanna Alm, the CEO of Drop Coffee Roasters near Stockholm’s Mariatorget. Different shades and textures of wood dominate Drop Coffee’s spacious premises—from expansive window frames and exterior bench seating to wooden chairs and countertops where baristas expertly assemble espresso drinks. Inside, Drop Coffee harnesses warm light fixtures, wood-pallet furnishings, concrete flooring, and plush sofas and armchairs from Nordic Care to construct an environment that is “more bohemian than clinical,” as Alm describes it, making for an inviting spot to linger over a cup of coffee. 

Other than its aesthetic appeal, using natural materials ensures a certain durability and enduring quality to the interior. It also buffers against the very real possibility that the staff will get tired of looking at it day in and day out. When designing Johan & Nyström, Damgaard integrated organic elements—such as wood, metal, and various stones—to ensure that the premises wouldn’t become dated in a few years and force him to renovate it. “We didn’t want to make one of those prestigious, expensive, and famous designer places,” Damgaard says. “The plan was to build an honest, timeless space that could have been there for the past ten years and continue to exist without getting boring for another ten years.”

Designing a coffee shop that would stand the test of time was also the aim of Café Pascal owner Arman Seropian. When collaborating with his brother to construct the Vasastan cafe from scratch, Seropian wanted to devise a visual identity that mirrored the top quality and craftsmanship of their coffee. “We wanted something that would feel timeless and give the impression that it’s existed for the past five decades, but we also wanted a space that we’d be happy to work in every single day,” he says. Café Pascal’s high-ceilings give way to exposed brick walls and a mixture of wood and marble furniture, while the main countertop injects a splash of light teal into the otherwise monochromatic space. Seropian’s favorite items are the industrial lights that date back to the early 1900s that “come from old Swedish factories that don’t exist any longer.” Paired with the cafe’s more modern furnishings, they create the classic, timeless effect that Seropian first envisioned. 

The smaller objects are equally important and deliberately considered. It’s a shop owner’s nightmare for a customer’s otherwise flawless experience to be tainted by something as minor as a rusty serving spoon, a chipped mug, or a menu that disintegrates while perusing its worn-out pages.

This is something that Drop Coffee thought long and hard about when redesigning their old coffee pouches. “We were buying raw coffee beans that we were super proud of and putting a lot of attention into the roasting process, but ended up with a bag that didn't mirror the value on the inside,” Alm says. So she enlisted the help of designer Simon Ålander to fashion something more functional and appealing. Now, their in-house roasted beans are sealed in a plastic bag with a degassing valve before being packaged in durable and stackable cardboard boxes. Each box has a wraparound coffee plant illustration on the back panel and the cafe’s logo is printed in bold font on the front. “It’s more alike to the coffee sold at supermarkets rather than the standard specialty coffee packaging, but there’s an elegance to it and it communicates what we’re doing.”

It’s not easy to prize functionality and simplicity while recreating the comfort one could find at home. But Stockholm’s cafes are keen on trying. “The coffee certainly has to be well-made, but the interior also needs to be warm and friendly,” Alm stresses, emphasizing the importance of generating a welcoming environment that makes customers feel like they’re relaxing in their own living room or salon. 

Seropian agrees: “Many people regard coffee shops as their second home, which makes you as an owner want to create something special that will thrive for a long time. Cafes and people have existed together for centuries.” 

For Daamgard, it’s impossible to separate the actual coffee beverage from the surroundings in which it’s consumed, especially as it relates to the fika experience. “Fika allows you to pause time, enjoy a cup of coffee, and reflect over the people and the environment you find yourself in,” he says. “Great coffee coupled with great interior design is like therapy—but less stressful and much cheaper.”

As first published in Volume 4: Stockholm of Drift