Lion in the Valley How an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times came together. In approximately 6 hours

Matt Dorfman at The New York Times called one Thursday at noon to see if I could pull together an illustration for the next day’s paper. I was able to clear my schedule the next six hours to meet his 6:30 same-day-deadline and was proud to pull together a reasonably neutral piece on what has been a volatile news topic. The editorial was penned by a professor at Penn State, who despite obviously lamenting the recent travesties to occur there, felt conflicted due of the lack of conversation about the good works that Joe Paterno had accomplished while at PSU. Rather than focus on Paterno as an individual, the stronger ideas looked at ways to get across the notion that football and academics are integrated in the narrative of this (and most) college towns. 

Below are my initial idea sketches which I sent over to Matt after about three hours. We discussed our favorites and he presented the two marked with red squares to the editors, who chose the book as football field concept. After discussing with Matt how I might execute the final version, I wandered over the Housing Works Cafe and stumbled on a $1 copy of Lion in the Valley. Fate, it seemed, wanted me to draw on an actual book. So I drew, people watched, I scanned, retouched, and sent off to my new friend, Matt.

Pulling Espresso & Pulling in People at La Colombe

We’re so enamored with our lovely, light-filled studio overlooking Lafayette Street on the border of SoHo and Nolita that we wanted to post about our neighbors’ great brand experiences, interesting names and thought-provoking brand strategies to give you an idea of what it’s like to work in such an inspiring area. Here we go…

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Like our days, our Neighborhood Series starts with coffee. Whether walking up our block or looking out our windows, the waving of the La Colombe Torrefaction flag from the Soho outpost directly below our office and the coffee-perfumed air emanating from it tempts us to wander in for truly delicious coffee.

But sometimes we have to wait, as it’s not uncommon to see a line out the door and down Lafayette. New York is no stranger to coffee and the pursuit of localized, simpler experiences is going strong and getting stronger (proof: a European espresso franchise is about to open its first U.S. cafe in NYC—to the tune of $34,500/month for its West Village lease). New Yorkers continue to be a demanding bunch and there’s something about what La Colombe offers—an experience “where taste trumps novelty”—that sits just right with us.

Because La Colombe focuses so clearly on coffee, customers, and the community, every brand touch point carries meaning. When it comes to coffee, there’s no menu. Anywhere. There’s no need since La Colombe only deals with the true basics and they’ve hired knowledgeable and talented baristas to support the offering. No mocha frappuccinos here, but you will find the essentials: black coffee, cappuccino, latte, mocha, macchiato, etc. Without the multitude of choices that have become standard elsewhere, like a range of sizes, flavor shots, types of milk, and intensities of foaminess, customers have to be true coffee enthusiasts because they can’t doctor up their drink until it becomes unrecognizable and La Colombe has to have full confidence in its roast since it stands on its own.

For customers, it’s easy to become a regular. Not only did the baristas have our drinks down after only a few trips in, but they do more than just make coffee—they make conversation. Plus, La Colombe supports local businesses (Francois Payard’s baked treats are for sale) and events that add color to the neighborhood (understated leaflets promoting local events make an appearance once in a while). But, there’s no distracting collection of tangentially related and heavily branded merchandise to clutter the experience. Even when a line snails around, the natural materials, white space and calm energy creates a blissfully serene and welcoming atmosphere.

If you order a drink to stay you’ll be handed an elegant black and white Deruta ceramic cup and saucer (well documented on both Yelp and Pinterest) or a simply branded paper cup if you take it to go. Either way, you’ll have a delightfully simple experience under your belt and a real coffee treat in your hand. No wonder La Colombe has such a large, devoted following: they offer a streamlined, authentically European-style coffee experience without pretense or frills. With all the other coffee destinations in the city, loyalists seek out La Colombe because it’s true to its brand. Taste does indeed trump the trappings of novelty that have fragmented the focus of other coffee establishments.

(Images by Heather Hardy)

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If you need a cheat sheet before you visit, may I suggest you check out Plaid’s Pour Poster badges? Our friends at Basno helped us turn our original Plaid Pour Poster into digital badges so you can own your favorite coffee drinks online. Apart from the doctored-up drinks we feature (i.e., alcohol infused), the La Colombe baristas will be happy to create any one of these for you. 

In search of truth

Last night I joined a crowd at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting & Sculpture to hear Rebecca Rabinow speak about an exhibit she curated for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Matisse: In Search of True Painting”. When I saw the event in the spring lecture catalog, I wasn’t exactly sure what it would be about, other than Matisse, of course. But, was he under the impression that some painting was false? Were the curators implying that his paintings weren’t all true? What exactly is true painting?

As I settled into the lecture, what I found most interesting was that Matisse wasn’t born an artistic genius, in the way that Michelangelo or Beethoven were considered prodigies. He worked hard at it, only becoming a painter in middle age and after teaching himself by copying masters. Even when he became recognized for his work, he still wasn’t satisfied, often repainting, re-evaluating and even re-doing his work in an entirely different style, while keeping the subject matter the same.

Because of this, we’re left with a large collection of multiple versions of his paintings, like thisStill Life with Purro 1, 1904 and Still Life with Purro 2, 1904-5:

After the lecture, a woman asked about the exhibit’s name and Dr. Rabinow revealed that the phrase had come from a letter Matisse wrote about wanting to “push further and deeper into true painting”, which referred to his need to iterate and to refine in a measured way, from one painting to the next. He was so riveted by the process of painting that he required an exhibition in post-World War II Paris to be hung with his accompanying progress photographs—an expensive demand—so viewers would see how he arrived at the finished work, or, his true painting. The entire focus of Rabinow’s particular exhibit is to show that aspect of Matisse’s work: the pairs, trios and series that he created all in the search of truth in his work.

As she spoke I thought about what we do for brands—there’s an inherent essence, a story behind a brand that we need to express through its words, values, imagery and actions. But, how do we know which direction to take? Much like Matisse, we start with an idea and push and pull at it until we reach a brand’s true voice, which reveals itself to us during the creative process. Like Matisse, that process is as vital and important to us as the finished work.