Genius Loci: Tillerman Coffee Company
Tillerman Coffee Company is located at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Park (1341 Research Center Drive) and is one of my favorite places to get away and write. I like it because it’s a neutral space for me to go and work with good lighting, open floor plan, and delicious treats regardless of time of day. The best part is that it’s a distraction-free public space where I can be around other productive strangers. I get the benefits of being social without risk of falling into the traps of inter-office dialogue. It is a treat for the senses.
There’s always an orchestra of sounds coming from the bar: pressurized espresso machines making aromatic shots of pure caffeine, whirring steam frothing milk for cappuccinos and lattes, clinking tins, cups and glasses as the baristas tidy their space and the periodic banging out of espresso pods and mayonnaise jars. Conversations between companions provide a syncopated rhythm alongside the humming drink coolers and prep counters. The one sound I have never heard here is the beautiful voice of the glossy black grand piano on stage. It sits quietly, untouched, waiting for a long-lost partner.
The furniture is attractive, flexible and varies in the space. Some tables are meant for singles or couples and have pale-blue molded chairs that feel like they’ve come straight out of the 60’s. Others, for groups of four with more conventional office-chair type seating have locking wheels and are meant to be moved freely about the space depending on need. Some tables are made tall and of dark wood with a glassed top with white leather barstools. Some of the seating is more lounge-like, in vibrant colors like burnt orange or pale blue, complemented by geometric, south-west inspired fabrics used on ottomans and in the carpeting. The lounge chairs invite a user to come relax and wraps them deeply into the comfort of the black-leather cushions on its steam-bent form.
The room is alive with plants: 9’ tall fake ficus trees anchor one wall near the entrance. A medium-sized snake plant punctuates an accessibility conflict between a step and a ramp. A tiny jade plant lives in a teacup near the register. On a dark shelf, a poor airplane plant in decline reaches for sunlight, but collapses into a teacup, the effort futile.
The art work is largely about plants as well: framed pictures of collages depicting the coffee plant and teas hang on the wall between large windows with views of a forest buffer beyond the parking lot. Large 150-lb burlap bags that once held coffee hang between the large windows at the top, each above a framed collage, so no matter where you look, there are pairs of things together for visual interest. Each bag shares a similar message as a worldly traveler: “I have had great purpose. I have seen the world. I am not from here. I am a memory from my former life.”
And the smells: rich coffee flavors float around the space from the café bar. Depending on what people order, there could be stronger aromas of espresso or herbal infusions with cinnamon or chai. When someone orders a sandwich, the scent of toasting bread is inescapable. One almost can’t resist ordering something once their memories of taste are triggered. At the counter, a plastic case with four levels inside houses the most delightful treats: fresh donuts—plain glazed, filled with cream, topped with chocolate, and sprinkled with cookies—it’s hard to pay without adding one to your order. Many can’t resist the temptation.
The exterior walls are white. One interior wall is painted pale blue, like the chairs, and it curves inward into the space; it’s subtle, but the variation guides people through darkness toward the counter or to brighter lit working spaces on the other side. In the shadow of this wall are four rustic wooden shelves that hold coffee-themed decoration, products, and Tillerman swag for purchase: t-shirts, cups and full-size pour-over coffee units. Glancing around the space, one discovers a trick of the architecture: directly over the counter and connecting to the curved half-wall is a different ceiling height than the rest of the space. Where the room is painted white is both literally larger and feels infinitely larger than the space around the counter.
Tillerman Coffee Company has a life of its own. It is a living, breathing space with character and charisma that appeals to all different groups of users. Whether you’re working by yourself or with others, there’s a place here for you. Full of sounds, sights, smells, and textures, it is pure stimulation for the senses.
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Writing after reading Christian Norberg-Schulz (1984) Genius Loci: Toward a Phenomenology of Architecture. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. New York.
Norberg-Schulz’s simple definition of Genius Loci is the “spirit of place” (p. 5).