Wellington cafe culture

Page 4 – Design and technology

Influence of design and technology on milk bars and cafés

Changes in layout

Milk bars were often fitted into the ground floor of long, narrow Victorian or Edwardian buildings. Individual booths began to appear, giving greater privacy for patrons. The bar generally stretched almost the entire length of the establishment, replicating the classic American public bar made familiar through exposure to Hollywood films.

New construction materials

Art Deco and Streamlined Moderne styles were influential in commercial interior fit-outs. Products such as stainless steel and plastics were now available to architects as was a new, inexpensive material under the brand name of Vitrolite. It was a pigmented structural glass which could be sculpted, cut, laminated, curved, coloured and illuminated. The clean look of Vitrolite and the ease with which it could be hung meant that it was often used for 'modernising' an existing building.

Milkshake machines

Milkshake machines were commonplace throughout New Zealand until the 1970s. Patrons sitting at the bar could watch milkshakes being made in machines almost certainly manufactured by US firm Hamilton Beach, which pioneered the milkshake machine in 1911.

Espresso machines

In the early fifties cafés or coffee houses started to emerge. They introduced Wellingtonians to espresso coffee. Espresso machines similar to that patented by Italian Luigi Bezzara in 1901 were the first to appear in Wellington's cafés. They featured a tall cylindrical boiling chamber which had to be of a substantial size to create the required pressure.

In 1938 an Italian company, Cremonesi, revolutionised the process of espresso making. A hand-operated (and later electrically-powered) piston was used to create a far higher pressure while the temperature of the water was held just below boiling point. This ensured that superheated water would not burn the coffee, producing a bitter brew. In 1946 Achille Gaggia marketed the first espresso machine to draw hot water from the bottom of the boiler, thus excluding steam. This ensured that all the properties of the coffee were extracted.

These machines gradually began to arrive in New Zealand during the 1950s. But parts became almost impossible to obtain when the Labour Government's 'black budget' of 1958 raised import restrictions. Gradually simpler styles of coffee (such as Cona) took the place of espresso.

Café design

The interior design of early cafés was innovative. Formica came to dominate: it offered a hard-wearing surface and was available in a huge range of colours at low cost. For those cafés that could afford the expense, fine wood veneers were used.

Two cafés in particular reached a standard of interior design which would have equalled any in Europe at the time. Harry Seresin's Coffee Gallery, a café/bookshop in Massey House on Lambton Quay, was designed in 1952 by an Austrian émigré, Ernst Plischke, although it did not open until 1957. Suzy's Coffee Lounge on Willis St, opened in 1964, was designed by another Austrian émigré, Friedrich Eisenhofer. This was the first time in Wellington that the 'International Style' had been seen on such a large scale.

By the early 1970s, Wellington cafés had begun to disappear. It was only in the late 1980s and 1990s that Wellington saw a rebirth of its café culture, and with it, the emergence of a true vernacular style of Wellington café. Today, local establishments display some of the most innovative commercial interior fit-outs ever seen in the city.

How to cite this page

'Design and technology ', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/the-daily-grind/design-and-technology, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jan-2016