A conversation with Liz Muller, designer of the Starbucks Milan Roastery
MILAN– When Liz Muller stepped out of the car onto the curb of the bustling Piazza Cordusio this week, nearly a dozen members of her team were waiting to greet her. They took turns embracing the Starbucks chief design officer, kissing her on each cheek.
“We have a surprise for you,” they said, leading her through a small opening in the temporary fence standing around the soon-to-be-opened Starbucks Reserve Roastery in the heart of Milan.
It was only last year that Muller began sketching ideas at her dining room table for what would become the first Starbucks in Italy. More poetic still, she was designing a homecoming of sorts for her close friend and colleague Howard Schultz, chairman emeritus of Starbucks. It was a trip to Milan in 1983, where Schultz marveled at the human connection in the city’s espresso bars, that inspired what would become Starbucks.
It’s been weeks since Muller has been able to visit the Roastery in person but taking her to see the latest progress inside the gleaming, nearly finished space she designed is not the surprise her team had in mind, or at least not the first one. Inside the fence, they’d set a beautiful table for her on the terrace with pastries and French presses full of coffee, the beans in which were freshly roasted just up the steps. The team raises their coffee cups to the center of the table in a toast: “We’re almost there!”
Inside, the Roastery has been humming day and night in the frenetic final push to opening. But after her team’s coffee tasting, as Muller ascended the terrace stairs to enter the Roastery, hundreds of baristas, bakers, roasters and mixologists stopped their work and gathered around the front doors. They clapped and whistled when Muller entered, and cheered even louder as she paused and looked around the nearly ready space – all light and color and brass and Italian marble. She paused, took it all in, and beamed at them.
“It is so fantastic to see all of you in this beautiful house,” she said. “What a moment. I get emotional thinking about how beautiful this space is, but how much more beautiful it is with you in it.”
Later, she hugged Reserve managers and partners as they received their official Roastery aprons.
“Bellissimo!” she said as one manager pulled the apron over her head.
Along with Milan, Muller and her tight-knit team also designed the Roastery in Seattle as well as the one in Shanghai, China. Over the next few years, they are designing Roasteries in New York, Tokyo and Chicago as well. Muller said she’s constantly in awe of her role, and of Schultz.
“Nobody can dream like Howard,” Muller said. “For every dream he has, we get to make it a reality. It’s one hell of a task. He shares with us the dream, and the feeling, but he leaves it to us and trusts us to fill it in.”
In the midst of final preparations, Muller paused to sit down with the Starbucks Newsroom for a far-flung conversation about the Milan Roastery, the importance of the third place, her decade at Starbucks, her creative process and what inspires her.
How do you go about giving each Roastery a unique sense of place?
When we set out to do a project, be it in Shanghai or Milan or New York City, the first thing I do with my team is get on the ground, walk the streets and learn the city. We absorb how people live, what they do, what they buy, how they dress, what makes them tick, what turns them on, what technology they use – and not only the what, but why. Why do they do what they do? We see the architecture and go to important historical places and try to understand what makes it unique on the world map.
What makes Milan unique on the world map?
Milan is where the idea of engineering and manufacturing to perfection started; it’s where Ferraris were born. Milan is where the world looks to see what fashions are on trend for summer or winter or fall. It’s is a place with an incredible history of trade and craftsmanship. And the food!
When Howard and I walked into the building that would become the Milan Roastery for the first time, it was just incredible. What a magnificent landmark. And by then I was starting to feel and understand and know the history of the city, with all the drama of Milan literally down the road, so a lot of clues about the design of the Roastery started coming to me immediately.
I am so inspired by Milan – I mean, the colors, the incredible artists, the marble, glass, stone, mosaics, brass, sculpture. And the team did such a great job of translating all of that into the colors, textures and materials in the Roastery.
How do you design a space with an elevated, handcrafted style that is simultaneously practical enough to accommodate thousands of visitors each day? That seems like a tall order.
A plan is very critical to the success of the space. We actually created the plan for Milan at my dinner table one night in Shanghai, where we were working to open the Roastery last year. I remember it was very late, three or four in the morning, and I had sketched all night, and I got so excited we finally had the right plan for Milan that I immediately wanted to walk Howard through it. I made a FaceTime call to him. The table was a mess, there was paper everywhere, but I held the phone over the table to show him the sketches. He said, “You’re crazy. I love it. Let’s go.” And that was the start of the project.
The process begins with rough sketches, and then we get into the details. I must say, all of this is not possible unless you have a very detailed, focused team. They look at the big picture, and think through solutions, and we build on that right up until the end – to perfection. It’s a constant process – what’s our material, how it will work, who will do it, how do we find the right artists to collaborate with, what is the cost, can it adhere to the schedule? Everything matters. If it’s not right, we do it over.
What are some of the touches in the Milan Roastery you are most excited about?
I love that we brought in Italian materials, and we brought the best Italian craftspeople to partner with us. Don't underestimate the engineered ceiling and its acoustics or the beautiful Italian marble mosaic floor. But the thing I am perhaps most excited about is how the Roastery transforms throughout the day and night thanks to the colors, light, richness and the beauty of the materials.
Who are some of the people who stand out to you as you’ve been working in Milan?
In these projects, it's about the people; the people you meet, the long relationships you make, and how you become a family. The people who truly stand out to me on this project are the Italian craftsmen who worked with us to bring an incredible, one-of-a-kind creative retail experience to life in a very short amount of time. I am amazed at how they rose to the occasion. It's been an honor to work with them – they inspired my team and me, drove us to better heights, and made this project a success.
What do you want people to feel and remember about visiting the Roastery in Milan?
The thing I’m most passionate about is that the Milan Roastery is so different. When customers walk through that door they will see something unexpected – something that works only in Milan, and only in this incredible building. People will come and enjoy and have coffee and artisanal food and community in this magnificent masterpiece of architecture and embrace that everything we did here is a first.
I want people to remember what an incredible time they had here. It's a space for community where everybody is welcome, should you be a local, a visitor, a tourist, part of a group, or wanting to spend a moment on your own. I hope people will be inspired by the craft of the building, or the fantastic cup of coffee, or the unique drinks and mixology, or the artisanal food that gets baked here every single day, all day, by Princi. I hope people will be inspired by the attention to detail and not want to leave and when they do leave, say, “I just love this place, and it’s a happy place, and I had a good time.”
This is the first Starbucks in Italy. What does that mean to you?
This is where Howard's dream was inspired. This is where Starbucks was born. And to bring that full circle, this had to be perfect, and it had to be the best, and it had to be unique. This city inspired our brand. I cannot wait to have people come in and see it. Milan deserves this.
What is it about Starbucks that has made you excited and fulfilled enough to want to stay for a decade?
I truly am the most blessed person in the world. I knew we could bring people experiences no other brand could. It has not been an easy road and has had many challenges, but we get to create spaces where people can connect and embrace life. Anybody can design anything, but how do you design something that truly touches people? I think it's overwhelming to think that thousands and thousands of people each day visit the Shanghai and Seattle Roasteries. That truly is being able to live the dream of creating. I could never be bored here, and I’m so inspired every day by the partners around me and the teams we’ve built.
In these divisive and troubled times, what importance do you place on the act of sitting in an inspiring place and enjoying a cup of coffee or tea?
I think this is probably the most important question. We live in a world with such turmoil. It’s beautiful to get to create places where community can come together.
Very few physical spaces truly inspire people to get away from the digital world – to sit in an inspiring space and be happy and connect with other human beings and have a beautiful cup of coffee and listen to music and enjoy fresh-baked, artisanal food and maybe meet someone new. We all have so little free time, we want to spend it with very good people or, if we’re alone, being inspired. I love these spaces we have built and there is so much more to come.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Honestly, if I'm not working, I’m trying to get inspired. I love long walks, hanging out in the city, and listening to music. I love traveling – every city and every country inspires me, and I have to feed my soul. I love nature – I love Africa, and going on safari in the bush, and wearing my worst clothes and soaking up the beauty of nature and animals. It teaches me so many things about textures, colors and finishes. I love being in Amsterdam, in my home, riding my bike, and stopping to discover new places.
I love to be by myself and relax – I actually have no problem being alone. I enjoy a quiet moment, but I also love to have dinner with very good friends, and my team is my family. I also love hanging out with my mother – my mother is my rock. I love walking with her, visiting with her, going on trips with her, and have an unplanned day. That’s what I love to do when I’m not working, but if you're creative, you actually never stop working because even when you're relaxing, your mind gets going and you’re thinking of something else – what this or that could be, or what you hear or smell or what’s inspiring you. You come away with a skip in your step, I love it.
Your parents were both creators. How did that influence your view of the world?
My father was a fine cabinet maker and my mother ran a design and sewing school. They were both incredibly talented in their own way. From a very young age I was surrounded by creativity and perfection and passion and an attention to detail that I think rubbed off on me. They instilled in me a strong work ethic and taught me to do my best, stay busy, use my head to work through problems and to embrace the power of teamwork.
I have to know, what does your house look like?
Many people ask me this. I think your house is a true reflection of you and your life. That is true of my house. I love modern, but I don't like edgy. My house is airy, warm and very functional. It has good sound – that was important. It is timeless, but beautiful and eclectic – it has every country and culture in it, the journey of my life and things I’ve collected from around the world. I have many objects, and everything is positioned perfectly. My friends always crack me up by saying, “Which corner can we sit in?” when they come to visit because it everything is arranged perfectly, but I like it that way. When people say, "Where are you going for vacation?" I say, "I'm going home." I love being in my home.
Do you have a central design philosophy that guides you?
It's weird. Some people start at the beginning – I start at the end. I want to know what will happen in a place, and how people will enjoy it, and then the colors and the textures starts forming. I'm thinking, “What can happen here? What is the feeling people must have when they walk in? How can this be different – something that’s not already out there, something the world has not yet seen?”