Blue Bottle at Fifteen: At Home with Michelle Ott
Blue Bottle's illustrator reflects on fifteen years of beauty
Creativity is a Blue Bottle value going back to the very beginning, and we owe so much to the artists that have shaped us. Few have had as much impact, however, as illustrator Michelle Ott, a Blue Bottler since our earliest days.
In honor of our fifteenth anniversary, we wanted to share this Oakland gem—illustrator, photographer, quilter, and Antarctic traveler—with our friends and followers all over the world. But when she pulled out her memory box of Blue Bottle artifacts during our visit to her sunlit loft, we realized that a portrait of the artist is a portrait of us, too.
Read on for Michelle's reflections on Blue Bottle, aesthetics, and of course, her favorite way to enjoy coffee.
The Allure of Visual Art
One of the aspects of photography that resonates for me is that it is a visual language that deals in specifics. For me, it doesn’t matter so much that pictures are "real" or "fake," but I love that they record a detail of something or someone in a place or an object that makes it look more real than the thing itself, and that they evoke a sensory experience. I find that when I’m doing drawings, I enjoy the ones that render objects or spaces in the truest fashion: Specificity is usually the way I find the most satisfaction.
Inasmuch as visual art becomes a touchstone for memory, being a person who makes visual work can be a way to record or reinforce subjective experiences. The sweet thing about many of the (now) older drawings I made at Blue Bottle is that they were the direct answer or solution to a question or problem that we needed to solve. So the first map of where the Mint cafe is was quite literally a necessity to make sure people knew where that location was. Some of the first drawings were just charts for the accuracy of the grind for iced coffee on the grinder!
Blue Bottle's Roots
Since Blue Bottle's beginning, the company and its products have been constantly refined. When I began working there, so many people wore so many different hats (and Carhartts). We would fill up the propane tanks for the markets at the end of a work day in the office. To this day, that refinement continues to be pursued in the architecture of cafes, aesthetics, coffee, food, and service extended to guests.
During the year immediately preceeding my move to Oakland and subsequently working at Blue Bottle, I had a project called the Postcard Machine. I had always considered this project to be my sketchbook—a project with the dual purpose of keeping me drawing and making things when I didn’t have the money to work in the darkroom (making prints of negatives that I had made during several seasons working in Antarctica) AND earning some extra cash to support those trips to the darkroom.
The summer before I started at Blue Bottle, I was working as a baker and counter staff at a bakery in Portland, Oregon. The owner of the bakery was always telling me I could make the signs for the pastries (Pie! Cupcakes!), and I ended up painting a sandwich board for her that she keeps in her kitchen to this day.
Blue Bottler & Artist
I think that both the bakery job and the Postcard Machine were a bit of foreshadowing, because when I started at Blue Bottle my actual goals were to have a job that would A. pay my rent, B. allow me to ride my bike to work, and C. leave enough time for me to develop my studio work (i.e., not work fifty hours a week for someone else’s project.) My general hope was to have a job that I wasn’t miserable at and be able to leave the work at the office.
The position that I was hired for at Blue Bottle just happened to be the right thing at the right time. I had enough experience with bookkeeping and administrative work to be of service in the office, but I also had plenty of experience in food service and other small-but-fast-growing places to be able to maintain flexibility as the job changed. Still, it took about three years for me to realize that there was an opportunity to propose doing more of the things I liked doing instead of the things that needed to be done.
Creating an Identity
My very favorite illustration is a drawing in The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee which describes the anatomy of an espresso machine. That project was very satisfying to be a part of and I think the reason is that it had an instructional component about the very specifics that shaped the identity of Blue Bottle. The scope of the project was also very useful for me in understanding that I could do drawings that would be used in a much broader context—outside of the roastery and the cafes.
How Do You Take Your Coffee?
My coffee life is a constantly changing vortex: Sometimes I like a cappuccino, but sometimes I like to get an Americano. My two favorite Blue Bottle combinations are:
Photos by Marble Rye Photography.