Like every other millennial in today’s wi-fi and the coffee-powered world, I enjoy making a visit to the café whenever I can as a motivation to get some work done. Over time, I have built a list of my favorite coffee shops in and around downtown Chicago. Instead of rating them by the quality of their coffee, I thought, why not let us take a different approach and look at them through the lens of architecture and design? While some of these are chains and others independent, it is their attention to design that makes these five stand out among the plethora of other cafes in Chicago.

1. Fairgrounds Coffee and Tea (W. Fulton Market)

Architecture and design style: Modern Industrial Retro
What’s special: Swing seats at the counter, retro arcade games, and decoration

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Fairgrounds Interior; Source:

Upon entering through the clean and contemporary glass doors, one is immediately drawn back in time by a flickering neon light display reminiscent of 60s movie theaters. Being one of the chain’s newest locations, the Fairgrounds at West Fulton Market features interesting interior design character with pipe elements, shelf displays of vintage coffee and goods, decorative rope pulleys, vintage style mirrors and sofas, exposed lightbulbs, as well as a vintage arcade game. The café is near twice the footprint of a regular café in downtown Chicago, but more importantly, space-planning here is well-executed. From small groups of cozy sofa seating in the corners to the counter seating surrounding the central island bar, the café provides plenty of seating options and levels of privacy for different users. A white-washed brick wall complements the exposed ceiling and copper beer pipes to create an industrial vibe that is both inviting and upbeat.

2. Sawada Coffee

Architecture and design style: Historic Industrial
What’s special: Historical architectural elements, double-height ceiling, and decorative string lights

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Sawada Coffee Interior; Source:

This cafe in Chicago features a historic double-story interior with black-painted brick walls, exposed ceiling beams and columns, corrugated sheet metal on walls and beneath the bar counter, reclaimed wood table tops, rough concrete flooring, and weathered wood decking. String lights hanging from the exposed ceiling beams not only act as atmospheric lighting for the interior but also serves to bring the double-height ceiling down to create a more intimate sense of scale and environment for customers. These elements, in addition to the high clerestory windows, create a dark but pleasant interior that is laidback and upbeat. While most of the café is dedicated to large communal tables and spaces, it also offers other seating options such as bar seating by the counter and more private seating along with the window. Interesting decorative elements such as skateboards, punching bag, and vintage arcade game stations also add a sense of energy and youthfulness to the historic setting.

3. Purple Llama

Architecture and design style: Funky Minimalist
What’s special: Coffee and music pairing, a backdrop of vinyl records collection

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Purple Llama Interior; Source:

Located on one of the hippest streets in all of Chicago, Purple Llama is an independent coffee shop that focuses on the pairing of coffee and music. Not only are vinyl records displayed as part of the design of the café, but they are also housed in an extensive collection for customers to browse and peruse in a small corner towards the back of the store. Here, a large, purple neon light of the café’s logo hangs from the ceiling to create an aura of purply jazz as one sips their coffee. Other purple elements such as tables, signages, and even napkins create an edge and atmosphere for the minimalist cafe, that is distinct but not overwhelming. Although there is limited seating inside the small café, there is plenty of outdoor seating with purple tables in the front by the sidewalk.

4. Limitless Coffee & Tea (Fulton Market)

Architecture and design style: Chic Minimalist
What’s special: Bright interior with skylight and folding windows

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Limitless Coffee & Tea; Source:

Aside from the range of innovative food items served at Limitless Coffee & Tea, the interior architecture and design of its Fulton Market location are also creative in its use of bright interior space. Stepping into this cafe in Chicago, one’s eyes are immediately drawn to the long, gable skylight stretching along the middle of the ceiling. In addition to letting in natural light, it also creates an architectural statement that transitions into a feature wall display in the center of the café. Light-colored wood used for tabletops and seating furniture also complement the clean, white walls, white tiled counter, light gray floor tiles, and a white-painted ceiling to create a bright and airy interior. Additionally, folding windows open out onto the sidewalk and bring even more of the outside air and light into space. While interiors like this are not usual for café designs, this location provides a successful example of using natural light and white surfaces to achieve a clean and modern look.

5. Dark Matter Coffee – Caravanserai 

Architecture and design style: Mexican Street-side Aesthetic
What’s special: Thematic style, hyper-realistic murals, large potted plants

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Dark Matter Coffee; Source:

Just opened in January this year, this cafe in Chicago is the local coffee chain’s newest location and displays a strong and distinct aesthetic as with all its other locations. The focus of this café is the Mexican hot chocolate, targeted at both the chocolate and mocha-loving customers of the brand. In evoking a Mexican landscape, the café’s interior is made to look less like an interior and more like a street-side coffee stall with outdoor seating. The ceiling is painted a light blue evoking the sky while large, potted plants line the tiled bar-height counter. Outdoor metal stools sit on top of stone pavement floors, and the murals transform solid, interior walls into arches that look beyond. Everywhere you look, the hues of dark yellow, orange, and red are sure to add an extra shot of Mexican warmth and friendliness to your already lovingly made cup of coffee or hot chocolate.


Shivani Pinapotu is almost an architect. She started writing to make sense of architecture and in it, she found her joy. She believes that architecture is as much a creative process as it is an expression, a celebration, a million stories untold and she aspires to unfold them all through her words.