My favorite commercial project that I have worked on in the last few years, The Play Cafe, was that rare project that combined all the best aspects of working in design: It involved creative design and problem solving for a great client, it was fun and it would make a positive difference for my local community. The Play Cafe opened in late 2013 on the Main Line in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania to provide a space where parents can bring their young children to play in an expansive, kid-friendly environment that also includes a coffee bar and lounge where the adults can work and relax.
I remember what it was like to be a young mother, and how easy it was to get isolated. The opportunity to create a place where you can get a really great cup of coffee and let your kids play in a dynamic and supportive environment struck me as something I would have loved to have when I was raising young children.
Designing such a multi-functional space required both creativity and special care. When the owners and I first walked through the original 4,000 sq. ft. space, it was compartmentalized and broken up, as it was being used as a model home for a local developer. But the fact that this was to be a play environment meant that parents had to have clear site lines to their children at all times. Our challenge, therefore, was to open up the space without making it feel cavernous–maintaining a level of safety while enabling children to explore and engage in activities independently.
The Play Cafe is all developmentally oriented; there are no screens or electronics. Instead, it is designed to be an environment that emphasizes small and large motor coordination, interactive and social play. Every single thing we designed from the custom stage, to the loft area with a play market place to the custom-designed drawing wall with a local street scape of Bryn Mawr, is meant to encourage imagination and growth rather than programmed activities.
To create an inviting space for both adults and children, one of the signature design elements was the entryway. From the get-go we wanted a sense of fun and freedom. Practically speaking, we needed to provide weather protection so that blasts of outside air would not bother people in the lounge area and kids at play. At the same time, we wanted to keep the doorway visible so that the employees working at the coffee bar could see who was coming in and greet them. We designed the entry with colorful custom panels that divide the space physically while maintaining an open quality visually, establishing right away that this was a fun and friendly place. Specially-designed lighting assures that the playful quality of the panels is visible inside as well as through the store front. Even after hours, they create a happy, multi-hued glow visible to passers by.
The dividers were custom-designed and built with these marvelous 3-form panels, featuring multiple colors of fabric embedded between acrylic sheets. And we were thrilled to learn that the panels offer a great story in and of themselves. These pieces were created by indigenous women in Africa through the work of a sustainable materials manufacturer, 3-form. This had great appeal to the owners of The Play Cafe, Lauren Ainsworth and Jane Dellheim, who are highly committed to supporting the lives of women and children. Since its founding, the Play Cafe has been the site of multiple charitable events, such as their annual Superhero Kids Fun Run and has raised funds for multiple local causes, so it had great appeal to the owners to use materials that were sourced in a way consistent with their own vision.
The end result was a friendly space with a playfully modern aesthetic, that remained a locally-oriented, neighborhood place.