On Detroit’s Michigan Avenue, next to Warren & Wetmore’s now-decrepit Beaux-Arts Michigan Central Depot, is the Mercury Coffee Bar, a local hot spot that is a sign of the hopefulness of a younger generation of Detroiters intent on repopulating the city. It is a whimsical space that at once evokes a fun house and an Art Deco train car. In fact, Zago Architecture’s design cue for the café comes from the very trains that once rolled in from Cleveland to the depot. Principal Andrew Zago’s team channeled Henry Dreyfus’ iconic 1936 Mercury train in particular, whose streamlined profile was the steel incarnation of speed. To that end, Zago uses metallic, angular surfaces throughout in a nod to the machine age.
Another major component of the space is color. Pink and blue racing stripes across the ceiling shift into bright CMYK colors on the walls, a palette and application that collectively suggest the printing of a misregistered cartoon. For Zago, this whimsy stylistically liberates the space: “It creates a freedom to introduce various pieces.”
The ground floor of the bar has an open plan, with a custom central steel counter that serves as the focal point. Zago designed the folded patterns with a fairly straightforward combination of FormZ and AutoCAD. Those files were used by the laser cutting shop, and then a small local manufacturer bent and welded the steel. Lacquered wood inserts and counters were added on site.
White stairs descend to the basement level, opening up another seating area. The stairs and their grid-like enclosure are made of laser-cut steel that was slotted together like the partitions in a case of wine. The basement’s brick walls create a more subdued atmosphere than the technicolor wonder of the ground floor and are lit by a narrow clerestory where the storefront dips below grade.
Cartoonish glee and Art Deco trains may seem discordant, but with whimsy and great lattés, Mercury Coffee Bar is bringing life back to the neighborhood.