Q&A with Chérmelle D. Edwards of smdlr

Coffee seeps through all aspects of society. No longer just a “quickie” shot of caffeine through one’s veins, coffee, at its core, is culture itself.

In our first Coffee People installment, I discussed coffee and design with Brian Jones of Dear Coffee, I Love You. We had an in-depth conversation on how coffee intersects with design and branding, and why those things are inseparable.

For our second installment, I invited Chérmelle D. Edwards, curator of smdlr, an influential site on all things coffee. As a writer, documentarian, and “coffeetographer,” Chérmelle portrays all aspects of coffee culture, from fashion to music to art and, of course, coffee.

As all talented beings are, Chérmelle is inspired by many things. Here is an almost-short list: God, family, friends, flea markets, people, Henry Miller, Picasso, architecture, style-bloggers, print magazines, William Faulkner, random conversations, Alexandre Dumas, independent music, Miles Davis, neighborhoods, thrifting, hostels, Toni Morrison, beaches, books, Brooklyn, Thomas Newman, travel bookstores, L.A., love, natural light, Africa (all of it), acoustic guitars, airports and airplanes, Picasso (yes, she listed him twice), graffiti, Gustav Klimt, Maxwell, caffeine, Bon Iver, Modigliani, Annie the movie, yard sales, Van Gogh, ideas, and paper in all its tangible forms.

Ever since I stumbled upon smdlr, Chérmelle’s content has provoked me to ponder about how coffee affects fashion, music, and all shades of culture.

Coffee + fashion, coffee + music, and coffee + culture are at the heart of our conversation here. While coffee culture cannot be summed in one interview, I hope this serves as a valuable insight as to how coffee has stained our beings. For the better.

Enjoy.

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INL: “smdlr.” This is an interesting name for a website. What does it stand for and what is its significance?

smdlr: Thanks, you’re right.  I have a lot of fun helping people to pronounce it too. But, that’s always been an excuse to start a wonderful conversation. So, smdlr is an acronym. It stands for small, medium and large. The name harks back to a historical and traditional time when coffee was consume in standard and understood sizes, small, medium and large. Of course, there is also a personal and subliminal implication of the impact coffee has on culture to these varying degrees. 

INL: What inspired you to start smdlr?

smdlr: So many things!  I was at a point in my life where I realized that how coffee culture was documented didn’t speak to me, nor did it represent me and the types of things that I was interested in that was happening in the space. And, as I think about that now, it’s so serendipitous, because isn’t that how most passion projects start because of a lack of something? So, this lack quickly became a passion as coffee culture had been a part of my life since my early college days at UCLA, and I wanted to give myself first a chance to see what was missing, so I created the site. And, by extension, I knew that I would also be proffering another view of what coffee culture encompassed: culture.

INL: “Coffee + Fashion” is an intriguing concoction. You defined “coffeetography” as “photography . . . inspired by independent coffee culture . . . a visual response from connecting and communing with the people.” What does “fashion” add to the coffee house experience? How is “coffeetography” different from the likes of Scott Schuman and other fashion photographers?

smdlr: Intriguing indeed! I can’t get enough. It’s an interesting question you ask, because in some ways, fashion doesn’t add to the experience, because its equally part of the experience – it’s always there. Everyday that a human being wakes up in the morning, and dresses themselves (whether it’s 7 a.m. in their pajamas with an overcoat or they are dressed for an actual job) they are contributing to fashion. Now, if you compound that with the universal desire for people to gather in a communal space like the coffee shop, well that’s just human nature – fashion included – happening in one of the most revolutionary spaces of all time.

However, there are fashion moments or events that occur in neighborhoods where maybe you have a population that may dress a certain way – i.e. hipster – which adds an element to what I can find in spaces, or you may have a neighborhood prone to say graffiti artists, and that set of individuals upon entering a coffee shop will add something very interesting to the space in how they fashion themselves. And then of course, there is Fashion Week, which in New York adds an astronomical sense of expression because of the fashion industry, and it’s an event where style is on display and that definitely affects the space.

Regarding coffeetography and the likes of Scott Schuman and others. Scott Schuman is a wonderful modern progenitor to documenting the street. To be queried about photography in the same sentence with him is really an honor. I would like to believe, and this is from reading many interviews and hearing Schuman talk about his work, that he (along with some other wonderful photographers in the field) are also feeling something when they respond to a person. And, like them, it’s that moment that moves me to want to capture something. In that respect, coffeetography is the same: it’s responding to a feeling.

Where coffeetography differs for me is that I’m often choosing to allow myself to have that feeling from a specific space – the coffee shop. As well, I’m choosing to align myself around where these spaces are so that I can put my work into the framework of a specific culture, which is coffee. The specificity is by no way limiting because coffee is universal and so is the coffee shop. One doesn’t have to drink coffee to be apart of the culture or be aligned with it. When I’m working like this, with these lens’ in mind, I’m attempting to capture something personal while a person is choosing to have a personal experience – sometimes by themselves and other times with others – the dynamic of that occurring with so many other people around in a set space, makes being the coffeetographer something quite different.

I also feel that coffeetography is about capturing something immediate, raw and that deals with some innocence of the human element. I can’t always put my hand on the latter, nor do I always achieve it in a photograph, but when I do, I know it. And, it’s an indescribable feeling. I hope this answers your question.

“Coffeetography is about capturing something immediate, raw and that deals with some innocence of the human element.”

INL: Do patrons of different coffee houses have different “styles”? What does the patrons’ style say about that particular coffee house? How does “fashion” change a coffee house’s atmosphere?

smdlr: Yes and No. Yes, if they are a regular, as in they frequent that space often. But, a coffee house can have a style depending upon the population of its neighborhoods, and that at best is a generality that can always be broken. There’s always the person who is in the area, or visiting, or touring, or who stumbles upon it that makes the space fluid when it comes to style so that you can’t always pin it down. When I’m entering spaces, I can choose to think that I’ll know what I might find based upon previous visits, or if it’s my first time there, I could base it upon the people on the street, but I attempt not to, because the joy is being incited by something, and by someone.

INL: The “coffee + thrift” collaboration, in which you partnered with Stefany Mohebban of Pretty in Thrift, was created to “travel to four countries through four coffee shops and local vintage shops.” Why thrift? What does vintage fashion have to do with coffee? How is vintage fashion reflected from the four featured coffee houses and coffees (Ethiopia via Toby’s Brooklyn, Guatemala via Stumptown, Sidama Region via Café Grumpy, Brazil via Ninth Street Espresso), and vice versa?

smdlr: Why not thrift? I’m laughing. I grew up thrifting. It was a weekend ritual with my dad. It was always about the discovery, what could we find, and later as I got older, it became about the stories I would make up about the things discovered and how they also became apart of my life – be it clothes, or books, or Klein bags and the like. Stefany and I connected on Instagram – she’s such a lover of thrift and I loved following her before I knew her, and still do. She reached out to me via email and said we should meet up. When we did, what I didn’t know was how much she also loved coffee. We sat over coffee and grilled cheese at The Queens Kickshaw having moment after moment about the things we loved and an aha! moment hit me to explore what we loved through what we loved – coffee and thrifting.  Together, we ironed out the details and the journey began. I absolutely adore her!

Vintage fashion has so many correlations to coffee. It’s at times raw, meaning it needs to be attended to, just like a green bean. It can be well curated, like a special lot of coffee, i.e. microlot or single origin. It has to have a lot of attention in its detail to be received properly, which is the same with specialty coffee found in independent coffee shops. And like vintage because it’s often one of a small kind, which could be for anyone, its usually suited for a particular someone and that’s what I find about coffee too.  Coffee is for everyone but within that universality, there are particular coffees suited better for particular types of palates. Vintage fashion is an influencer; it’s a source where many artists pull from – in fashion, in textile, in art. Coffee is the same way; it’s also an influencer, and it has long been used as a muse for the creative set.

When it came to the four coffees we featured with vintage fashion, the goal was to let the coffee inspire the fashion. So, we chose coffee houses first, then it was Stefany’s idea to thrift in the circumference of the coffee house so that we could link the two by proximity and also keep the excursion local and close to the coffee. So, upon going to a coffee house, we would taste coffee and write about how the coffee made us feel, where did it take us, and what did it remind us of, and with those notes we went to the thrift shop looking for a fashion choice that spoke to the feeling of the coffee. It was a marvelous journey. Stefany and I both learned so much from allowing our senses to be at play in such tangible and visual ways. 

“It’s the sound of a nation, the rhythm of a culture, the story of a people”

INL: smdlr also features music at coffee houses. What does music add to the coffee house experience? What does the type of music a coffee house plays say about that establishment?

smdlr: Music is everything! It’s the sound of a nation, the rhythm of a culture, the story of a people. I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve walked into a coffee shop and heard silence – in the form of no music playing. It’s uncanny how eerie that silence is, at least for me.  Music is important in that it gives the walls of a coffee shop its own energy and I believe that every room has one. It’s crucial for the barista who is in that space to have something sonically that allows him/her to feel a sense of oneness in the space with his/her machine and the people around him/her.  It’s also important for the customer who is looking for a total experience, whether they are attuned to what’s playing or not as music sets mood, it creates memory and that plays into how a person responds to an environment which also influences if they’ll come back and for what purpose. Music, ah, it’s a powerful thing, very powerful.

What’s played in a coffee house can say a lot about a coffee shop and that’s even if the music is a Pandora station, a Spotify playlist, or a select repeated mixtape. Each of the former requires some thought, some decision. However, when the music that’s played is more curated, for example, a select crate of vinyl, an iTunes playlist, or assigned to the barista on shift, then we are getting into the realm of curating and individuality. Now, we’re talking specific intention and that means that the purveyor of that music is thinking about what he wants to hear, and also about what should be played at the time of his shift. These small choices have a huge impact on experience. I was in a coffee shop recently where I was served by a wonderful barista, and when I heard the music, I knew it was his selection. The time of the day was around noon, perfect timing for his compilation of Tupac with some oldies but goodies, followed by a punch of Taku. It was just perfect. I was picked up by the music and by my almond and macadamian nut latte. And, more importantly, my experience is now cataloged by not just coffee but part of the culture of coffee – the music.

INL: Like coffee, music has “layers” of flavors – melodies, countermelodies, alto and tenor lines, and so on. In a coffee house, which “layer” does music occupy? Is music an “upfront” feature, or is it more suitable as something in the background? Are there particular genres of music that fit better in coffee houses?

smdlr: Great question. Music has the ability to occupy any and all of those layers. I find that it’s really up to the owner of the coffee house or whom they’ve entrusted the music too. In some spaces the music is so faint that you can barely hear it. And, when that happens it reminds me of barista competitions when competitors are like, “Can I get my music up please?” Music is supposed to be heard. So, I feel that it should be heard, at a decibel where it can be enjoyed.   I feel certain spaces lend to music being more of a background player – sometimes these are smaller spaces because people still need to hear themselves. Whereas big spaces can play music a bit louder because it can evenly disperse throughout the area without hindering people in its spaces from talking and hearing one another.  

When it comes to genres, I think all is fair in love and coffee culture. There’s a shop in Park Slope in Brooklyn that serves a brilliant cappuccino, and they only play classical music. I love that! And, when I go, I have a cappuccino, listen to classical music and read the Sunday paper. There’s another shop I go to on the weekends, late at night and all you’ll hear is Dilla, Biggie, Das EFX, Chromeo,TuPac, Taku and the like, and I love that too – I wouldn’t want it any other way. And, then there’s other spaces that I go to and I’m constantly asking ‘Who is this,’ or tagging it to discover who I’m hearing because its something that I haven’t heard before, and I really love that because I’m being exposed to something new.

INL: Like coffee, coffee houses exhibit different “layers.” A coffee house visit may begin with the visual entrance (front door, signage, logo), leading to the first “whiff” of coffee, then the design of the counter and sitting area, music, and the patrons (and their fashion). When Chérmelle the “coffeetographer” walks into a coffee house, in what order does she experience these layers? Which layers are more prominent?

smdlr: Ha. This is an excellent question. Sometimes, I’m experiencing these layers all at once and other times, it’s upon entering a space – because of what it expresses – that something indigenous to it speaks so loud that I experience that layer first. Sometimes it’s the art, sometimes it’s the frequency of the people as a collective, but often it’s not the coffee at all that I’m experiencing until I actually have that first sip. Then, that’s where it all gets really exciting, because now I have a tactile experience to negotiate with all that my visual senses are already responding to. If there is music that has a resonance within itself to who I am, that will usually trump everything else. Most times, it isn’t a whiff of anything as it relates to smell that I am experiencing. I believe I am always experiencing the culture first, and then the coffee.

I must say that what always speaks the loudest to me is who I get to be because of what is happening in the space, and that extends to people, an article of clothing, a visual element, a sound, a feeling, and in the end, what I’m actually taking into my physical being, be it coffee, tea or something edible.

“Coffee is self-expressionism in the most absolute form.”

INL: “Culture,” in one word, could be defined as “self-expression.” Fashion, music, art – central themes of smdlr – are all forms of self-expression. Is there “self-expressionism” in coffee? What are your thoughts on coffee as a mechanism for self-expression? Can a “beverage” do that?

smdlr: Absolutely. Indubitably. Beyond a doubt! Coffee is self-expressionism in the most absolute form. Everything about coffee is a statement. From how a farmer decides to seed his cherries, whether they are growing in shaded conditions to if they are designated as a micro lot coffee, those choices are evidence of how a coffee is going to ultimately be expressed from how it’s picked, to how it’s sold, to how it’s roasted.  And once it’s roasted, there’s an entirely different movement as to “self-expressionism” in coffee. It’s what that coffee tastes like that then has to be articulated by someone so that it’s part of an accessible yet transparent conversation for the industry and the consumer.

Then, there’s also the brewing methods that will determine how a coffee expresses itself, which in turn directly correlates to what one experiences in the cup and that’s where coffee as a beverage plays its role. If that coffee beverage is a pour over sans milk, that will have a specific communication, and yet if that same coffee is communicated through espresso and milk, say in a cappuccino, that will communicate something different as well. So, how a coffee is dressed – i.e. brewed and then accessorized with a form of milk, condensed milk, iced, cold brewed and beyond – will communicate something as well. Coffee is always a tool of expression; it just depends on whose hands it’s in that determines what will actually be expressed, which is why when it comes to coffee actually being consumed, the role of the roaster and barista is far from infinitesimal.

INL: What is “coffee culture” to you? What transformation could we expect to see with this culture in the coming years?

“Coffee culture is the body of the arts expressed through the lens of coffee.”

smdlr: Coffee culture is the body of the arts expressed through the lens of coffee. And, to be a little more specific, for my terms and purposes that lens is specialty coffee.   I believe we are going to see more of an enunciation of culture, than a transformation. Coffee culture has a long history. It’s nothing new. It’s just that in our present day, it’s being perceived as new, transformative because we are learning how to.  We are going to see more of culture as a whole making a connection to coffee and expressing itself with it and alongside it. It’s already happening, and it’s been happening for a long time. It’s a little lot generation culture up when it comes to coffee. 

I think there will be an increasing space to look at how the elements of music, art and fashion eimpact the space and influence the culture. There is absolutely no way to walk into a specialty coffee shop and ignore the fact that the three big players in culture – art, music and fashion – are primal factors in humanizing the coffee shop space, which is a long, storied and beloved institution. The biggest thing we’ll see is ourselves changing in relation to the conversation of coffee. We will be the ones talking about it as a culture and not just coffee. And, when that happens, we’ll have a transformation.

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All images incorporated into this Q&A was provided by the courtesy of smdlr. All rights and privileges to the images belong to smdlr and Chérmelle D. Edwards.

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