CHICAGO — A lot of flagship stores boost their brand and pay scant attention to the character of their cities. But the five-story Starbucks coffee palace that opens Friday in the former Crate & Barrel store on North Michigan Avenue feels at home in Chicago.
It’s not just that this emporium, which houses an array of coffee bars as well as a bakery and equipment that will roast about 200,000 pounds of coffee beans a year, is the world’s largest Starbucks.
Instead, the 35,000-square-foot facility can be deemed an architectural success for more subtle reasons: It’s visually theatrical, crisply designed and carefully tailored to its host city even though it springs from a well-worn corporate template. The flagship reminds us that modern architecture celebrates the process of making things, unlike beaux-arts buildings that hide such things behind pretty facades.
Once vinyl sheets that block the view into the store are removed in time for Friday’s opening, passersby will be able to look inside and glimpse such things as a towering coffee bean cask that resembles a rocket on a launchpad. Also visible will be ceiling pipes (some see-through) that carry roasted beans to silos at coffee counters, and a spiral escalator, billed as the first of its kind in the Midwest.
Here, the steel-and-glass sobriety of mid-20th century modernism gives way to a playful yet stylish aesthetic — “Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” meets the sophisticated, bentwood warmth of the Scandinavian design championed by Crate & Barrel’s founders, Gordon and Carole Segal. Even noncoffee drinkers like me may be tempted to step inside, just to glimpse the retail theater.
Officially known as the Starbucks Reserve Roastery Chicago, the store is the sixth roastery built by the Seattle-based coffee giant since 2014. (The others are in Seattle, Shanghai, Tokyo, Milan and New York.) Based on an advance look I got, it seems likely to attract visitors beyond the core of Starbucks devotees whose days are incomplete without a latte or nitro cold brew.
The project’s success boils down to a crucial decision taken by an in-house team led by Starbucks Chief Design Officer Liz Muller and Vice President Jill Enomoto. They chose to build on the architectural character of the Crate & Barrel store, which opened in 1990 and was designed by Chicago architects Solomon Cordwell Buenz.
With a glass-enclosed corner cylinder punctuating its outer walls, Crate & Barrel was a dramatic departure from the decorous, limestone-clad buildings of North Michigan Avenue. Taking note of its white metal facade panels, the American Institute of Architects’ Guide to Chicago compared the building to a man in summer whites attending a black-tie party, calling it “shamelessly transparent.”
But the store was a business success, using skylights and an escalator in the corner rotunda to draw people upstairs to buy clean-lined sofas and other tasteful fare. Last year, though, the store closed, a victim of changing retail habits. By that time, Gordon Segal, who still owns the building, had persuaded his friend Howard Schultz, then Starbucks’ chief, to fill the store with a flagship roastery.
To its credit, Starbucks has not plastered the exterior with the company’s ubiquitous green-and-white siren logo. Small black letters on the top of the cylinder spell out the name “Starbucks Reserve Roastery.” There may be more signage, but nothing grotesquely oversized. The idea is to let the activity within the store speak for itself.
When you step inside, you’re greeted by an old-fashioned, clickety-clacking train station flipboard that tells you what coffees are being roasted (in 400-degree heat) in a big machine in front of you. Bags of green coffee beans, which arrive at the store in burlap bags, will be cut open on a table next to the roaster. To your right is the big architectural move — the old Crate & Barrel rotunda, which has been dramatically remade.
At its center is the towering cask, which consists of eight cylindrical chambers clad in perforated, bronze-colored aluminum. The cask is a powerful sculptural object, although it looks a little cramped in the remade rotunda.
Conveyors bring beans to the top of the cask, where another machine drops them into chambers where the beans cool. As time passes each day, more beans will pour into the chambers, like grains of sand in an hourglass. Leave it to Starbucks to find poetry in a hill of beans.
A Mitsubishi-made spiral escalator sweeps a quarter-circle around the cask, giving visitors a dramatic ride to the second floor. (Conventional escalators transport people between other floors.) Steel beams extend the once-narrow floors around the cylinder further inward, creating ample sitting areas where visitors can look outside to North Michigan Avenue and be seen by passersby.
Throughout the store, custom-designed chairs and tables are pitch-perfect with the original building’s light colors and curving contours. Made of light-colored wood, with organic shapes, the furnishings come from BassamFellows of New Canaan, Connecticut. They resonate on a deeper level, recalling the Scandinavian designs popularized by the Segals.
Bronze-colored stainless pipes and perforated wood panels extend outward from the cask like rays of the sun. The panels are acoustic. They also shift in tone from dark green at the fringe to light green at the center, creating the illusion that the ceiling level is rising when, in fact, it doesn’t change. All this creates a very different atmosphere from the New York roastery, whose dark tones and cooper finishes evoke an old-fashioned men’s club.
Many other touches distinguish the Chicago flagship. The coffee bars are faced in 22 different types of marble tiles. Railings are wrapped in hand-stitched leather. The second-floor Princi Bakery and Cafe features handsome cast-iron ovens. Starbucks has retained the two-story skylit space on the third and fourth floors, creating a dramatic setting for a coffee bar there. In addition, a rooftop terrace transforms a previously unused outdoor space.
Even the remade fire escape stairway on the store’s south end is artistic. There, Chicago artist Eulojio Ortega has painted a handsome five-level mural that portrays a succession of images, from growing coffee trees to farmers harvesting the coffee. Like the coffee bean cask, the mural tries to draw people upward and celebrates the process of coffee-making.
It will be interesting to see whether the size of the flagship turns out to be boon or bane. Is there sufficient and sustainable demand for all it contains? If so, how well will it able to handle the crowds? Other Reserve Roasteries attract as many as 8,000 people a day, according to Starbucks.
However that part of the story turns out, Starbucks deserves kudos for crafting a design that simultaneously respects and freshens the landmark building in which it’s located. While the Chicago Reserve Roastery isn’t especially edgy or profound, it’s creative, multisensory interior architecture — one of the finest flagships, second only to the uber-transparent Apple store, on the Mag Mile.
(Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.)