The first time I sipped out of a notNeutral cup was at Intelligentsia Coffee in Venice. I remember being drawn in by the unusual shape of the handle, and admiring Intelligentsia's branding details: the red ring around the base of the cup, and the little red star that revealed itself at the completion of a cappuccino. It wasn't until I encountered notNeutral's booth at Coffee Fest that I learned the shape of their LINO cup was crafted in collaboration with the baristas at Intelligentsia Coffee.
As it turns out, notNeutral creates much more than specialty-coffee-friendly cups and saucers. If you stop by the notNeutral showroom in Los Angeles you will see they also design dinnerware, home decor, and furnishings. You may notice notNeutral's Larchmont headquarters shares a space with their parent company, Rios Clementi Hale Studios (RCHS)—an architectural and multi-disciplinary design firm that currently has their hands in some of the hottest real estate projects being constructed in California. And, in case you were wondering, RCHS' work includes designing the building that houses the notNeutral showroom and neighboring Cafe Gratitude.
I am thrilled notNeutral took some time out to answer a few questions about their company. If there is one thing I wish for you to take away from this interview, it's that the scope of notNeutral goes way beyond first impressions. Under their parent company, Rios Clementi Hale Studios, their design capacity stretches from the cups we drink out of to the buildings which surround us—and that's pretty incredible!
tLBCC: A lot of people may not know that notNeutral was founded by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, an architecture and multidisciplinary design firm. How did you get your start in designing ceramics?
notNeutral: It all started about 15 years ago, when RCH had the opportunity to design a restaurant for celebrity chef, Hans Rockenwagner. RCH designed the interiors, graphics, logo, menu, every aspect of the restaurant’s image. When it came to picking the dinnerware, everything we found was really bland compared to the restaurant’s décor… So we designed all the tableware, too.
The ceramics were so popular that the RCH partners were compelled to found notNeutral. We started in table top and then gradually expanded our collections to include kids items, home accessories, and furnishings.
tLBCC: On top of ceramics, notNeutral also designs home wares and decor. Is there a reason you chose the name notNeutral for this branch of your company?
notNeutral: notNeutral was founded in 2001, which was a really… beige… period in home décor style. We set out then, and continue to create objects that are modern, playful, and bold. We want to take ordinary objects and give them a point of view.
tLBCC: Eighteen months of research and development went into designing the original LINO Cup in collaboration with Intelligentsia Coffee. What were you trying to achieve with the LINO Cup design?
notNeutral: Our goal is always to strike a balance between beauty and function. The cups needed to be aesthetically beautiful, but practical for commercial use. We wanted them to have larger handles than other commercial cups, so they’d be ergonomic for both the barista and the drinker. We also wanted the espresso cups to be wide enough at the mouth that the drinker could experience the aroma of the coffee. Another goal was to achieve a wall thickness that went from comfortably thin at the lip to thick at the base for heat retention. We also spent considerable time perfecting the angles of the interior walls, and the curvature of the base in order to achieve optimal fluid dynamics for pouring latte art. We made dozens of 3-D models for the baristas at Intelligentsia to test and provide feedback. Many of these functional features proved to be manufacturing challenges that required many prototypes and samples.
tLBCC: You don't have to look too closely at a FINA Cup to see that it evolved from the LINO Cup, but it is also very different. What influenced the FINA Cup's design?
notNeutral: We worked with the Seattle based fine dining restaurant, Canlis, to design the FINA line. While LINO is made of porcelain, the FINA collection is made of new bone china. This material was selected to match the existing ivory hued table ware the Canlis and most fine dining establishments use. This material has the advantage of being denser than porcelain so it allowed us to go thinner while maintaining heat retention. This material also allowed us to sharpened the lines of the cup for the FINA collection, and add finer details to the handle to make them subtly more ornate and refined.
tLBCC: Is designing cups and saucers for the cafe setting the same as designing them for home use, or are there different factors to consider?
notNeutral: LINO was designed to be commercial grade in order withstand heavy daily use, but elegant enough to mix in with anyone’s home dinnerware. In addition to the functional features of the cup, the saucer profile was engineered for easy lifting, the rim is reinforced to be resistant to chipping, and the deep saucer well is intended to keep the cup secure in transit. Ultimately, whether in a coffee shop or a home setting, ceramic products need to be really sturdy and resistant to heat, chipping and cracking. We’ve started adding glazed and decorated mugs to our collection, which is definitely more popular among people shopping for their homes, but we’ve got coffee shops using those as well.
tLBCC: notNeutral really made a mark on the specialty coffee world at the U.S. Coffee Championships last year when Todd Goldsworthy became the 2014 Brewers Cup Champion using the GINO Dripper - a glass coffee brewing system that you designed. Can you tell us a little bit about the GINO Dripper and how it's design can help us make a better cup of coffee?
notNeutral: The idea with the GINO dripper was to create something that looked beautiful with our LINO cups, was easy to use, and made a really great cup of coffee. Because our LINO cups are known for their distinctive handles, we didn’t want to have one on the dripper, we thought it would look redundant. That’s what led us to the double-walled glass construction—It’s insulated, so the walls of the dripper stay cool to the touch. It also has the added benefit of insulating the slurry temperature, so you lose less heat while you’re brewing.
tLBCC: You have been huge supporters of the local coffee community through your sponsorship of Thursday Night Throwdowns, and it is clear by your engagement on social media that you are keeping a pulse on coffee culture. What most excites you about what is happening in the specialty coffee world right now?
notNeutral: So much! We see a lot of cafes taking a really culinary approach with coffee, concocting creative specialty drinks for their menus. The “third wave” of specialty coffee has been all about focusing on coffee quality, doing away with Starbucks-style customization, and paring down menus to just coffee and milk —which is super exciting, because all the sudden there are dozens of places in town to get an awesome cappuccino. Specialty shops express their point of view by not offering a ton of options. Now the best among them distinguish themselves by adding carefully crafted specialty drinks to their menus, and it makes the whole experience of visiting a new shop so exciting.
tLBCC: In terms of architecture, your firm has some incredible projects under construction right now like Columbia Square in Hollywood and Artist Lounge at the Hollywood Bowl, IAC planted building facade, or Sacramento Entertainment Spots Complex in downtown Sacramento. Do you have any more exciting coffee projects coming down the pipeline that we should know about?
notNeutral: Of course! We have an exciting collaboration under wraps with a brand we really love, that will come out this fall. In the next year the LINO collection will see a lot of growth too, we’re in early design phases with some new table top items that we’re really excited about. 2016 will be a big year!