Australia is known around the world for the seriousness with which it takes its coffee. It’s an art, it’s a science, it’s a career – it’s a lifestyle. For clients of the Beijing-based architecture studio, Office AIO, these values are shared. The tiny space in central Beijing (split between a 19m² coffee bar and a 15m² guest room), has become a serious venue for serious artisan coffee. The coffee bar, Big Small Coffee, maybe small in size, but it’s big on intention.
That is the sentiment that formed a large part of the brief to Office AIO. The long and narrow space is split down the centre by a Volga Blue granite bar floating atop a mirror-clad body: baristas on one side, patrons on the other. A distinction between these sides of the space is further demarcated by a change in materiality.
Small white butcher tiles on the side of the barista not only create a fresh backdrop for the busy space and introduce an agelessness to the design, but also help the space not feel so confined or limited. A line of magnets provides easy access to tools, coffee orders, and other miscellaneous items.
On the patrons’ side of the interiors, stainless steel foldaway plates have been custom- designed and attached to the walls. When flush, they give way to circulation and free movement within the space. One is able and encouraged to unfold these plates that serve as small tables for those want to enjoy their coffee in-house, chatting to their friends and the coffee house staff. Not only do these steel plates provide flexibility to the space but they also empower patrons to use and customise the space to suit themselves. Cork panels on the wall absorb sound, which benefits patrons and neighbours alike.
Storage potential here is limited due to obvious spatial constraints. However, the building has a generous ceiling height and thus the architects have incorporated floating shelves above the barista bar. The acrylic sheeting here allows a degree of transparency, without impacting light flow. Beneath this shelf is a singular, 2.4 metre linear light hung by four handcrafted leather straps. The brightness of the light can be adjusted.
The patio out front of the north-facing site is a place where patrons are encouraged to loiter and mill around, taking time to enjoy their big cup of small coffee. During wet weather, a crystal clear acrylic canopy provides protection without obstructing sunlight or views of the foliage above.
Moving through the coffee bar and shared courtyard outback, the owners also have access to a 15-square-metre room, a space they had originally planned to use for staff accommodation and storage. “But why not turn it into a guest room instead?” Office AIO suggested.
Initially, the space had been divided and used as living and sleeping quarters for a mother and son. Office AIO made a small extension into the courtyard and merged the interior spaces into one. Double-hinged doors open to form a small internal courtyard further emphasising the illusion of space.
Straw mats line the original pitched ceiling and walnut timber floorboards match the existing timber rafters and new timber joinery. These elements work together to create a space that is modern, warm and inviting while simultaneously evoking the traditional Chinese hutong dwellings.
Office AIO has utilised every inch of the space without overpopulating it. The essentials for a traveller are here, but nothing that would over-complicate or crowd the space. Beneath the built-nin double bed are drawers to store luggage and extra bedding. There is a shallow, cantilevered desk beside the bed for travellers to work – or reflect on their journey so far – and between the two is a hanging pendant light doubling as a desk and bedside lamp.
Alongside the bed is a long and narrow, yet surprisingly luxurious looking, bathroom. Small white butcher tiles mirror the coffee bar in aesthetic and effect. One steps up to a recessed bathtub and shower overhead towards the window where natural light and ventilation is most appreciated. The water heater is elevated along the long side of the room that avoids the overcrowding of space.
In the heart of Beijing, a city known for its struggles with over-population and the resulting need to work with compact spaces, Office AIO has been able to use architecture and design to increase the usability, and desirability, of two small spaces.
Photography by Eric Zhang and Yu Cheng
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