Introduction: On May 30, 2019, I sat down with the owners of Sightglass Coffee to begin gathering inspiration for an upcoming project we were to collaborate on. Sightglass is a coffee roaster based in San Francisco with four café locations around the city. It was founded by the brothers Justin and Jerad Morrison and recently Stanley Morris joined the team to assist with the expansion of their business to include food prepared on site. I didn’t realize at the time of the interview, but our discussion marked a decade to the month that we had been working together – we began design work on their first location in March 2009. Through the years we have revisited similar design themes again and again, each time with fresh excitement created by new surroundings – an iterative mode of creating that I have greatly enjoyed. For me this conversation was an opportunity to get inspired for the work we were about to undertake, as well as to reflect on what design meant to us after our years working together on five different architectural projects.
What Design Means to Us
Jerad: Design is very visually driven, but just as important is function and flow: People in the environment and how they interact with the environment.
Justin: It’s a combination of the function and flow, but also keeping it interesting. It’s finding unique ways to express simple materials so that it’s intriguing. Space has to be designed in such a way that people don’t have to think about how to flow through it. It allows you to take in the surroundings and the materials. Making it easy for folks: the beauty in simplicity. It’s really hard to execute.
Jerad: Being able to pull off the simplicity of all of that is challenging, but I think at the end of it all, the whole thing should just feel honest and intuitive and natural.
Stanley: Design is a response to functionality. It’s one of the reasons that the bars in all our stores work well, because the customers and the operators are thought of. would just want it to look good, and let the operators figure out what to do. I think starting with functionality actually delivers better design.
Keeping Complexity Below the Surface
Jerad: When we tinker and refine, from sourcing to roasting to quality control, all of this is complicated, but we don’t need people to see that part of the process because it should just feel really simple and accessible.
Justin: You just want them to experience the beauty of the product without having to get caught up in the complications of making that product. The space is the same thing.
What Makes a Location Right?
Jerad: It’s a lot of different things. I mean, it took us a long time to find the newest roasting location, for example.
Justin: It was a six-month pursuit.
Jerad: It was a lot of time on the ground, looking at a lot of different types of spaces and a lot of different areas. And every now and again, and this has been true with every single one of our stores, you walk into the space and it’s just sort of … you have an immediate sense that it’s just right. It’s appropriate for what we want to program. It just feels right. And the bank building was definitely one of those spaces.
Jerad: Yeah. But that’s no different than it was here at Seventh Street. We used to walk around in this area and be like “This is like legitimately seedy.” But then you get into the space and it’s this weird juxtaposition of beautiful potential and imagining people coming to this location in not the best of areas.
Justin: It’s a combination of the space itself and the area that it’s in, and the opportunity to do what we’ve always done: establish our own community around that. Being historical, there’s some really gorgeous details to the building itself. It’s a box, but it has some beautiful moldings on the outside. The high ceilings. The tall, linear windows that go around the whole exterior. It is easy to see making that space into something beautiful: reviving elements from when it was originally built, but also adding our own touch to the interior.
Timing a Neighborhood
Justin: The thing that is the most scary, run-for-the-hills, for me is the unknown of a neighborhood, which is also the thing that I’m almost most excited about: experimenting with something, being part of a transition.
Jerad: That’s the whole thing: is the business feasible in that building?
Justin: The mentality behind it that we’ve never really openly talked about is, like, “If we build this thing, they will come.”
Jerad: Yeah. Haven’t had to close a store yet.
Evolving Without a Formula
Jerad: I think we are creating an amenity to the community. What we offer is common spaces. And they’re all unique because of where they’re situated. Our clientele here at the large roaster is very different than our clientele at cozy spot on 20th Street.
Justin: There are some key functional elements that we look at with all our spaces, but we don’t have any formula. Every new location we get is an opportunity, an evolution of not only the design aspect, but of the Sightglass brand. We’re introducing elements into this space that you don’t have at any of the other spaces, such as having the ability to offer on-site food. Every time we go into a space, we are constantly trying to evolve the design of it, whether that’s in grand or subtle ways. When we just start formulaically knocking things out, that’s the death of Sightglass.
Jerad: That’s funny because we are starting to do that in little ways. And I think that it’s important because that is a plan. We own those things, like custom knock boxes and soap dispensers. That’s all stuff that we can duplicate for upcoming spaces. Like, look at the hex patterning throughout the roaster space. We have put that into Divisadero, for example. Yeah, always riffing off of Sightglass elements is the evolution of the brand.
Justin: To me that’s more about language.
Stanley: You go into a Blue Bottle store now, it’s very safe. The two new stores now in San Francisco are very similar.
Justin: That’s one thing we’ve executed very well, though, is identifying those things, like the hex pattern on different materials, and like translating them to different locations but not in a literal sense of every store’s going to have hex tiles on the floor.
What We’re Reading, Watching, or Streaming
Jerad: An album from 1974, The Jewel in the Lotus, that just got on my radar. It’s this free-jazz album by this guy named Bennie Maupin, who played on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. It’s that eclectic time when like jazz was introducing electronic instrumentation. It’s textured and sparse. It’s gorgeous. I listened to it nonstop this weekend.
Justin: In terms of inspiration, what’s that one thing that makes all like the bad shit in your life go away? The first thing that came to mind was my daughter. I’m pretty consumed in that world right now. I haven’t had much time to read. I do listen to a lot of music. I just picked up an album that I was excited about, Brenton Wood’s Oogum Boogum. It’s just like a fun record to have a dance party with my three-year-old daughter.
Stanley: There’s this incredible thing on Netflix called Flavorful Origins. It’s a 12-part series on a southern coastal region of China called Chaoshan. It’s about the Teochew people. Most of the Chinese people that are in Southeast Asia come from this area. It’s amazingly in-depth. The cinematography is extraordinary. Each episode is focused on just one aspect of that cuisine over the course of the 12-part series.
Getting Out and Getting Physical
Justin: I run, and I garden. When we first moved to Orinda, I built a raised garden bed. It’s been a work-in-progress the last three years, a lot of trial and error. I’m pretty excited this year. I’ve got some different peppers growing. Some tomatoes, some tomatillos. Cucumbers, some fruit. It’s a good mental check out. And then running. There’s a lot of important trails out where I live.
Stanley: I’m just all about yoga. And swimming. One of my greatest joys with swimming is that you don’t have to think about anything but the wall. Because I don’t share a lane, for me it’s about absolutely indulgent, personal, singular alone time. It becomes very meditative. Swimming is in a cadence, and so it’s like meditation.
Jerad: Last year I ramped up my running pretty intensely. I was almost up to 10 miles a day, which is a lot. Then I injured myself, and I’m recovering from that. My apartment is basically Lower Haight. I’d run up through Lower Haight by Divisadero, and then up by Buena Vista Park. Drop down into the Panhandle and up through Golden Gate Park, like Stow Lake. If I’m ever in that area, I always have nostalgia for running. That’s my motivation to get back on track. Because I couldn’t do cardiovascular stuff, I started lifting weights, like dumbbells. It opened up this whole world of fitness that I had no experience with. And it’s been really cool.