Public and private spaces where people intermingle – train stations, hotel lobbies, department stores, coffee shops and libraries – have started to become recognized as blank canvases, yearning to be transformed into something more significant. Spaces that are merely pleasant are often not enough for certain brands to get by anymore, that generic pleasantness quickly disappearing from customers’ memories without enthusiasm, admiration, or attention.
Converting spaces into inviting and intriguing art installations has become something brands of all stripes and sizes have begun to pay attention to and put their money on—and rightly so. Art installations, while capable of transforming physical walls, floors and ceilings into spaces full of imagination and inspiration, are also capable of shifting an audience’s perception of a brand, from forgettable to intriguing overnight.
One thing that holds true of both little-known and household-name brands alike, is that while size doesn’t matter, ideas do. Even a very small scale art installation– if it has a genuine and relevant artistic concept that is well executed – can easily become known far and wide, thanks to social media’s amplified word of mouth. Toronto’s own Sam James Coffee Bar (SJCB) is a perfect example. This small local chain of coffee shops has become recognized not only for its powerful coffee, but also for its powerful dark and grainy wallpaper installations. No matter how ultra-compact the five SJCB spaces are, there’s always room for the dark and beautifully distorted imagery. With each installation, one can introspectively look deeper into the art or curiously stare to find one’s own story. Either way, you know you’ve arrived at a SJCB shop, as soon as you see the dark and grainy looking wall made of distorted wheat-pasted imagery. Sam James, the brand’s founder, collaborated with his friend Jeremy Jansen, a Toronto-based artist represented by Cooper Cole Gallery in Toronto.
So what’s so effective about their collaboration? A key is that when it was developed at SJCB’s original Harbord Street location, it was allowed the time and artistic license it needed to create a trademark look. Harbord’s wallpaper installation represents a chronology of pastes, one layered over a previous one, again and again over the past 6 years. A pastiche of unusual looking imagery is continuously plastered over the wall, allowing it to become an icon of strangeness and magnificence at the same time.
As Sam James explains, “There is generally a correlating theme with the images and the space, or an inside reference. For example, the pastes at PATH are scans of film negatives with double sided tape laid in a way to represent a skyline of office towers, scarred with dust and lint from the studio. It’s meant to look ominous and larger than human scale. I want it to feel slightly intimidating, as if something was watching you, but you’re unaware of its presence or its reference at least. To the viewer, it should appear to be snowy and textured, more than it is graphic or figurative.” It is a piece not only to be looked at, but also to be talked about and wondered about – just as we’ve been doing for a few years here at Arts & Labour.
For this strategically minded young brand, in a competitive category full of hipper-than-thou boutique coffee shops, the space they inhabit is a crucial opportunity to engage the consumer, excite them and be remembered for it. The wheat-pasted black imagery has become their trademark – visual DNA that’s easily transplantable into any SJCB location. They have skillfully, yet unpretentiously, fused the brand with art by adding another level to their already desirable experience, good coffee. It’s a combination that’s hard to resist and makes them a competitor that’s hard to beat.
In our next post we’ll take a look at a somehow unusual art-fusion collaboration from the latest Feature Art Fair in Toronto. Happy 2016!