Inspired by … STARBUCKS!

Starbucks coffee. I tell myself that it’s not really an addiction but must also admit that it is hard for me to resist entering a shop if one happens to be nearby. But do I do so for the coffee alone? After some consideration, I realised that, actually, no! The appeal of Starbucks goes far beyond the drink.

Entering a Starbucks is typically a really pleasant experience. Their slogan, “to inspire and nurture the human spirit–one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time” offers some insight into the reasoning behind the welcoming ambiance of Starbucks’ individual shops. These stores aren’t just selling coffee, they’re selling the Starbucks vibe, and it is this that draws me in every time. Many local competitors, at least here in Hong Kong, don’t quite succeed in exuding the same feeling. Consequently, though their coffee is at least as good as Starbucks’, I frequent them far more rarely than Starbucks.

What makes or breaks the vibe?

The environment around us informs how we feel about many things, and Starbucks outlets are no exception. Over the years I have found that many are designed in highly creative ways. Each shop has its own quirks and its own individual personality. Yet they are united in promoting a comfortable, zen-like atmosphere which seductively encourages Starbucks customers to either take a quick coffee break or work for hours in the shop itself (making good use of the complimentary wifi!).

To successfully attract customers, the design is highly considered, something that becomes evident as soon as one takes a closer look at Starbucks interiors. Quickly, one discovers trends amidst the wealth of interesting features present:

  • Neutral color schemes
  • Creative wall treatments
  • Subtle and not so subtle lighting
  • Fancy flooring partitions
  • Innovative seating arrangements
  • Funky wall decor

By tweaking each shop’s interior on these six points, Starbucks creates designs that are both site-specific and easy to produce. Some designers, however, have gone the extra mile, particularly in high-profile shops, and turned their Starbucks outlet into a masterpiece in interior design, one that becomes all the more significant for how underappreciated it is. In this tribute post to Starbucks shops, I want to take look at a few pictures that my co-blogger Katherine and I have taken over the last couple of months while visiting various Starbucks located all over Hong Kong.

The Neutral Color Scheme – Modern, Coffee, and Zen

“Complementing what they dub their “exotic, rare and exquisite” coffee offering is a seriously au courant interior design that transports you out of a Hong Kong only context.  Warm wood counters paired with grey stone-like walls and flooring, rough finished stucco ceilings and an even darker toned wood paneled feature wall bring to mind modern industrial warehouse interiors of any big city.”  – Katherine

Mid to dark shades of neutral colors, mainly greys and browns, are the dominant hues in Hong Kong’s Starbuck shops. A careful balance is thereby struck: greys look professional and austere, but used alone would create an uncomfortably cool atmosphere, particularly when applied to hard finishes such as raw concrete or tiles. The brown design elements, which are typically found in wooden shelving units, chairs, wall decor and leather upholstery, soften this and make the shop welcoming. Note that the greys are reserved for the more utilitarian aspects of the shop, while the things customers interact with directly, such as countertops, are brown and warm… social psychology at work.

The dominance of brown and grey tones reminds me of both coffee and Japanese interiors, the combination of which creates a unique coffee-zen atmosphere I find incredibly attractive.

The Wall Treatments – Creative and Fun

If you are ever on the lookout for inspiring accent walls, a visit to your local Starbucks may be all you need. We have come across all kinds of walls, from ones made of undulating wooden paneling,

cool backlit lattice metal panels,

20-Starbucks - Wall paper

Wallpaper library

and beautifully painted wallpapers that turn even the bleakest wall into a magical library that seems to have been borrowed straight from the set of “Alice in Wonderland.”

Despite their beauty, I have found that these feature walls are generally quite neutral, something particularly evident in the pattern-oriented appeal of the first two examples. They subtly inform the atmosphere of the shop, ranging from the natural to the more modern. As such, Starbucks feature walls are quintessential in making the shops into such pleasant, unique environments.

The Lighting – Subtle or Statement?

Interesting ideas for lighting, whether applied as accent, ambient, or task lighting, abound at Starbucks shops, too:

Katherine, for one, was mesmerised by a massive pod-like lighting fixture hanging in the Starbucks Reserve at Pacific Place, one of Starbuck’s newest, and fanciest, hangouts.

“Bringing it all together is a striking suspended ceiling sculpture which evokes a pod from outer space and echoes the organic metal pieces that have been arranged organically on the feature wall to look like a coffee tree.  The warm copper and bronze tones of the panel that make up the pod sculpture create much needed contrast to the somber feel of the overall design.”  – Katherine

Like Katherine, I am a big fan of installing sculptural lighting fixtures; large spaces just seem to demand them! (I’ll pass on most chandeliers, though.) As used above, they have the potential to provide focal points. Yet not every Starbucks shop has a massive atrium. Smaller rooms, or ones with lower ceilings, are given slightly different treatment, as the designers combine cove lighting with smaller pendants (as shown in picture A above) to create a cozy, inviting atmosphere in favour of a dramatic one.

However every Starbucks is as much a workplace as it is a shop, and as much consideration needs to be put into design for the employees as for the customers. In my experience, when it comes to task lighting, a series of spots precisely illuminating a work-zone is hard to beat. This kind of lighting suggests focus and utilitarianism. Consequently, this kind of light is most often found in kitchens and offices… or behind the counter at workplaces like Starbucks. In order to make spots more stylish, one typically installs recessed spots, as they have a certain neutrality that allows them to be used pretty much everywhere. If you, however, want to create a more industrial ambient, you may well prefer a cable or track lighting system similar to the one featured in picture C above! Starbucks, having to cater to so many sites, epitomises flexibility in lighting design; each solution enhances its space perfectly.

“Especially striking is the use of track lighting and posterior, up-lights in the shelving which not only warms up the grey interior color scheme but also highlights their coffee beans.  The track lighting’s black metal frame also round off the industrial look.”- Katherine

Finally, my favourite: the sleek accent lighting at the back of Starbuck’s shelves. I’m not sure, but I assume this is done with LED strips, installed such that they illuminate the wall but stay otherwise invisible. The beautiful, glowing effect is reinforced by the satin finish of wall tiles that simultaneously reflect the light and allow it to softly diffuse over the display items, increasing their appeal tremendously, and making customers more inclined to buy.

Flooring transitions – Playful or Precise?

What does one do when one is faced with the challenge of creating a cool transition between two radically different types of flooring? Is it possible to section off part of a space without introducing physical partitions?

Again, Starbucks shops prove an inexhaustible source of inspiration. As the first picture shows, smooth transitions don’t always have to be gradients. Indeed, they may look far more interesting if done more dynamically. This shatter-like effect between floor tiles and raw concrete is playful, intriguing, and oddly charming; I really love it.

In the second picture, the area around and below the table is smartly cut off from the rest of the flooring. Seen from further away it actually looks like a low-pile carpet spread out underneath the table area. Upon closer inspection, however, one realises that it’s no more than a simple vinyl inset, as indestructible and easily cleaned as the concrete flooring around it. Moreover, sitting at the table gives one the feeling of floating on an island … your private coffee island … cosy and closed-off.

Seating arrangements – Indoors, Outdoors or right in the Middle?

What rule is there that chairs must face the interior of a room? If you have large windows and/or a beautiful view, seating arrangements that encourage one to actually look outside have something going for them. Bar seating is also perfect for coffee stores such as the one in the second image above, which are located at the epicentre of major thoroughfares, for they allow individuals a sense of privacy while simultaneously being able to observe the frantic action around them. A final option is to sit right in the middle, like at a Starbucks in Vancouver near Canada Place.

Starbucks Vancouver Canada Place

Sitting in middle of a very tall and open space still feels comfortable thanks to the magic of this unusual design (Vancouver/ near Canada Place)

Wall Decor – Inspired and Down-to-Earth

No room is complete without accessories, and Starbucks shops are no different. Using different sized wooden spoons to create a fancy wall decor immediately reminded me of the many examples of African wall art I have come across over the years. I thought that this piece here was exceptionally well done. The repeated circle motif suggests community, and the unusually shaped spoons may well be a nod to the African source of many of Starbucks’ coffee beans. Another, more pragmatic idea, was the installation of a simple blackboard in the right-hand image. Some Starbucks blackboards are also handwritten, or have drawings on them, the customisation giving the standard Starbucks menu personality. When applying this to one’s own designs, one is not even limited to using a real blackboard. Applying blackboard paint to a portion of the wall does just as well, and whiteboards made of glass or plastic can also look very nice.

That’s all for now; to my surprise I ran out of pictures! It looks like I don’t go into enough Starbucks shops after all… that will be remedied. I hope this post inspires you to keep an eye out for the design that surrounds us, even in such apparently mundane places as Starbucks outlets.

Oh, and should you see a cool piece of interior design in your local Starbucks, please feel free to snap us a picture at We’d be honoured to add your examples to the post!


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