A tiny café in Malate’s approach to good design

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At only 23 square meters, the space of Blocleaf Café is intimate. Taking cues from the minimalism and functionality of Japanese design, the owners of the coffee shop managed to realize their ideal neighborhood café in Manila. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) Blink and you’ll almost miss Blocleaf Café, an unassuming joint along the stretch of Malate’s M.H. Del Pilar St. It’s situated in good company: a few blocks down is Aristocrat right along Roxas Boulevard and the bohemian and creative abode Syquia Apartments; on the other side of the street is a smattering of Korean and Japanese restaurants near Remedios Circle, as well as a few galleries and museums for the inclined. The area is far from something that needs a revival — it remains vibrant and pulsating with life, especially at night when the shop signs and neon lights illuminate the streets teeming with energy.

Blocleaf’s unassuming presence blends right in with Malate’s mix of bars, restaurants, pensions, and hotels. Tucked on the side of Ermita’s Hop Inn Hotel, the appearance of this glass box of a café is a reflection of its aspirations as a coffee shop.

Blocleaf Café The simplicity of the design is attuned to the purity of Blocleaf’s approach to being a coffee shop. The focus is on an expertly brewed cup of coffee, created with the help of local specialty coffee folks at Kalsada Coffee. Photo by JL JAVIER

Blocleaf Café "Designing for Blocleaf, since it’s a very small shop, we had to make sure that the furniture are comfortable enough for the customers to linger but not for very long," says co-owner Vince Africa who was involved in the design and production of the coffee shop's furniture. "We also had to be directly involved in the production process.” Photo by JL JAVIER

“This sense of familiarity is what we want to share with our customers,” says co-owner Reymart Cerin. “It’s actually our goal to be ‘the neighborhood café’ in Malate — to be the go-to space for your caffeine fix when you’re around the area, and for people who actually live in Malate to connect in our space through time and encounters. It’s not our aim to be the best cup of joe in the world, we just want to give the best experience we can give within the confines of this tiny joint.”

At only 23 square meters, the space is intimate. White walls, glass, and brushed wood panels give away the design’s Japanese influence. The simplicity of the design is attuned to the purity of Blocleaf’s approach to being a coffee shop. The focus is on an expertly brewed cup of coffee, created with the help of local specialty coffee folks at Kalsada Coffee.

The interiors and design is a result of a collaboration as well. Architecture firm One/zero Design Collective helped shape the form, and production was handled by Fabricca Manila (the two groups also collaborated on the design of Escolta’s The Den).

Blocleaf Café "For the chairs, we had to experiment with forms and function," says Blocleaf co-owner Reymart Cerin on the coffee shop's interior and furniture design. "Form in the sense that they should have very little footprint and function where we had to design a chair that can also serve as a side table." Photos by JL JAVIER

Blocleaf Café The facade of Blocleaf Café. Its logo is an obvious nod to Japanese design. Photo by JL JAVIER

“The café has always been a very personal project for all of us ever since our first meeting with our partners,” says co-owner Vince Africa. “So we get help from people we are already friends or worked with … down to the accounting services of one of our partners’ moms, we try to involve people who we don’t just trust but also [those who] care for the business.”

Blocleaf was originally intended to be a furniture shop. But when Africa and Cerin were presented with an opportunity to finally realize their plans for a coffee shop, they didn’t hesitate to take it.

The spirit of the furniture shop can still be felt in the pieces around the space. Africa and Cerin were involved in designing (owing to their core business, the design and branding firm The Public School Manila) and producing the chairs, shelves, panels and tables with Fabricca Manila’s Mickey Lu.

Blocleaf Café Some of the key design pieces in Blocleaf Café are the coffee bar (pictured left) and chairs (right). They are made of three different materials to perfectly execute the furniture: wooden slats; metal frame; and cement top. Photos by JL JAVIER

Blocleaf Café "It’s not our aim to be the best cup of joe in the world, we just want to give the best experience we can give within the confines of this tiny joint," says Reymart Cerin, one of the owners of Blocleaf Café. Photo by JL JAVIER

“As someone who works a lot on solving problems through design, we somehow developed a certain eye for detail whenever we go around,” says Africa. “It’s almost weird to note that other than actually using the furniture, we always feel the need to touch and smell them — even guess how the craftsmen pieced the creation together. And designing for Blocleaf, since it’s a very small shop, we had to make sure that the furniture are comfortable enough for the customers to linger but not for very long. We also had to be directly involved in the production process.”

“For the chairs, we had to experiment with forms and function,” says Cerin. “Form in the sense that they should have very little footprint, and function where we had to design a chair that can also serve as a side table.”

“[The customized furniture is] of utmost importance since we were working with a limitation,” he adds. “And just like in any other design problem, limitations help you as much as the liberties you’re given.”

Though the size of the space was limiting, this was a hurdle that challenged Africa and Cerin to create Blocleaf’s functional design. Every inch has to serve a purpose that will contribute to an intuitive flow for the customer’s experience, from the moment they enter the shop to when they sit down and enjoy their coffee while basking on the natural light streaming from the windows.

A long table nestles a selection of international magazine titles the owners are fond of, ridding the space of unnecessary clutter. The height of the tables takes into account the bags and other baggage people might bring into the shop, and the seats are intriguing enough to be conversation starters in themselves.

Its location is also strategic. Blocleaf is meant to be a retreat, a refuge for anyone in the neighborhood — whether residents, tourists, or visitors — who want a calm, quiet place to settle down even just for a little while. Beyond being “Instagrammable,” attesting to how the design has worked down to the last detail, the café is a great example of how Japanese design can do wonders for such a tiny space.

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Blocleaf Café is located at 1850 M.H. Del Pilar St., Malate, Manila. Visit their Facebook or Instagram page for more details.