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Food for Thought: Musings on Coffee Shop Art (Part II: Caffè Nero)

Photo by Nathan Dumlao. Taken from Unsplash. The image has been cropped.

Guest writer Charley Nash on art found in Caffè Nero. 

There is very much a theme in Caffè Nero on Kingsway. It feels intellectual, the type of place where you’d take a Teams meeting or write a book. It screams “trendy shared workspace”. I should note here that I have just learnt that Caffè Nero is named after the literal translation of “black coffee” from Italian and not after the tyrannical Roman emperor. The more you know. Anyways, let us survey the scene.

There’s a big metal frame used as a bookcase in the centre of the shop, breaking up the seating areas and creating a sense of “Feng Shui”.  Upon it are many books, hardbacks, dustcovers removed. The arrangement of books on the shelf is not pretentious. We have, magnificently, Kerry Katona’s autobiography two down from “The Concise Columbia Encyclopaedia”. There’s a French tourist guide fraternising near John Grisham, an intriguing book entitled “HOPE” by Mary Ryan in embossed, gold letters, and, best of all, among a handful of paperbacks, “Breaking Dawn” of the Twilight series (aptly on top of an upside-down copy of a book called “Foolish Motions”).

This Nero has few pieces of artwork, disappointingly; rather, its ambience comes from its exposed faux-marked wood tables, singer-songwriter soundtrack (á la Taylor Swift in her “Folklore” era), the aforementioned books, and dark blue walls. I don’t think we’re even supposed to notice the artwork—but then, are we ever?

There is one huge photo on one of the walls, surrounded by a wooden frame. It is of an Italian vegetable stand in a market. This photo looks becoming against the exposed brick. It has nothing to do with the coffee-making process, as per Costa art. I don’t know if this is good or bad. Next to this photo is a smaller photo, also framed, of a balcony of what I assume is an Italian terrace. Placing this photo here is like placing a Chihuahua next to a Great Dane.

The other photos are also comically small against the cumbersome walls. On one wall, there are exposed, but painted the same colour as the wall, pipes in the industrial style (I am clearly an interior design expert now). There is a small 7×5 (perhaps) photo, framed, of a car on a street with a shadowed man in the shot. I find its composition annoying.

Behind me—not that I can get a good look; I don’t want people to think I’m that weird—are three small framed nondescript photos (just behind a man so deep in thought that he may be having some sort of reckoning or crisis). These frames are brightly coloured: one is yellow, one is blue, and the other is black. Another triptych. They get swallowed by the far more interesting man lost in thought (he is staring directly out the door, unflinching, I wonder if I should ask if he needs help?). Thus, we have entered firmly into the realm of non-specific Italian imagery. I had, for a moment, felt anxious that we wouldn’t see any here. Similar small photos like these pepper further walls; I won’t bore you with the minutiae, I’ve found something far more exciting. Quotes.

I am a sucker for quotes. I find them delightfully awful. Quotes feel aspirational, a declaration of how one wants to be seen in the world. How much “live, laugh, loving” can one middle-aged woman working a full-time job really do? Is your t-shirt proclaiming that “sweat is weakness leaving the body” really true if you’re wearing it to lie on the sofa? (As someone who is revising this with a plaque that says “get it girl” opposite me, I am my own worst nightmare and greatest influence.) As one enters the café, we are faced with a quote (painted on yet another exposed brick wall) from Gaetano, head of roasting. The typography of said quote has been contorted, exceptionally, into heart-shaped steam rising from a Caffe Nero cup. It reads, in marvellous cursive, “Coffee isn’t loved because it is great, it is great because it is loved”. This quote is nonsense, but nonetheless a quote that appeals to the 15-year-old GCSE Graphics student in me, who had just pyrographed “Paris is always a good idea” onto a homemade box. I am sure a similar sympathy would come from the “Home is where the heart (and wine) is!” tribe.

There is another quote, tragically obscured, behind the metal frame (I will crane my neck). It reads like a mission statement. “Coffee it is our craft, our ritual and our passion. It drives us and inspires us”. Gaetano, head of roasting, has been busy dreaming up these pearls of wisdom.

Let me draw your attention to the Caffè Nero website. Gaetano sounds magnificent. According to the website, Gaetano, master of quotes, is “not just a Master Roaster, he also has a way with words that brings the simplest stories to life”. I don’t need convincing. In case you needed more convincing on Gaetano, though, he makes sure he has an espresso with his wife every morning before work, and “every time [he] drinks coffee it’s a fond memory”. I rest my case.

Despite my cynicism, if it has come across that way, I have enjoyed the ambience of the Kingsway Nero, although I would not fight the swaths of people who flock here every day, specifically when I try to visit, for a seat—not when there’s a “hidden” one around the corner that plays classical music, the greatest soundtrack for scrolling through Instagram, but that’s another story.

Charley Nash

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