Mama Duck’s Cafe is a personal concept project I created as a vehicle to try out ideas that I had about branding a cafe, coffee shop, or small restaurant. Particularly, I wanted to experiment with type and environmental design, tying it into the branding of the cafe. I used watercolor and gouache as rendering media because sometimes the only way to express the vision in your head is to paint it. And so that’s what you do. Mama Duck’s Cafe is a tribute to an old cafe in East Lansing, Wanderer’s Tea House, and to Mama Duck herself.
Sometime in February of 2014, my girlfriend and I discovered a Muscovy duck had set herself up with a nest and laid herself some eggs in a bed of matted-down day lilies across the parking lot from our apartment. She hissed at us a little, I teased her away from the nest so we could count the eggs. We returned a little later with some oats for her to eat. We named her Mama Duck. We talked to her, we fed her, we made sure nobody parked too close to the nest, and we were there that wonderful morning when the ducklings finally started to hatch. She kept them there for three days because it had gotten too cold to walk the thirteen fuzzy little ducklings to the pond. I heard the meow, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I said good night to Mama Duck, never thinking that would be the last time I saw her.
We discovered Mama Duck and the ducklings murdered in their nest and strewn about the concrete the next morning. She was killed by a neighborhood cat. I held her lifeless body, I picked up the dead ducklings and put them back in the nest. I cried a lot that morning and I’ve never been the same since. That duck meant a lot to us. She was the promise of a bright Spring after our first bleak gray Texas Winter. We loved her. I miss Mama Duck.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate cats. Not any more. I did for a while, until we were adopted by a little fuzzball we named Claude. I just ask that if you have a cat, be a responsible owner and keep them indoors. There are far too many feral cats wandering around killing things for sport. Bird populations suffer, and that includes larger birds like ducks and geese. Mama Duck and her ducklings died because someone’s cat got out. That’s unacceptable. Keep your cat indoors. Visit the Kitty Convict Project for more information.
I positioned Mama Duck’s as a “really, really good little cafe” in the north part of Dallas. I envision it at the cross-streets of Abrams and Mockingbird, an area I spent a decent amount of time around, wishing there was a nice little cafe to get some good coffee and a breakfast burrito.
The idea is to provide high-quality wholesome food and artisan coffee in a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere that invites conversation and builds community. Mama Duck’s Cafe is well-lit with sunlight in the mornings and clean, warm-colored light fixtures in the evening and rainy days. Baked goods are made fresh daily and the blueberry muffins always run out before 10am, so get there early for the best selection. But the coffee is always brewing, infusing the air with a creative, buzzy smell of caffeine and dark roast beans. There’s a mural of a duck and some ducklings on the brown-red brick interior wall, the floors are reclaimed wood with old Persian rugs under the tables, there’s a counter and barstools adjacent to the semi-exposed kitchen for taking and tasting. There’s a similar counter at the window for those who just want to take in the sunrise with their morning coffee. Mama Duck’s Cafe is the sort of place where you fill up on your morning zen before you take on the world.
The audience for Mama Duck’s Cafe are budding and developed coffee connoisseurs and health-conscious commuters. The menu is full of healthy breakfast and lunch choices and the coffee is bought from local roasters. Mama Duck’s also has a nice selection of looseleaf teas and is known for their baked goods. Good food, great coffee, wonderful atmosphere.
The overall tone of Mama Duck’s Cafe is more or less my memory of an old tea house in East Lansing that closed a few years ago. They held open mics regularly, local artists performed there, students met to study and chat. I went there with people who I’ve now known for years, I developed a taste for looseleaf tea at Wanderer’s, right on Grand River, with the fountain in the back and the bronze cast of the dancing girl in the boulevard. I remember the smell of their “Hibiscus Happiness” tea like it’s right in front of me. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a place like this since Wanderer’s Tea House closed, but the experience has been a huge influence on my life ever since. Pow-wows with my best friend about girls, date nights, open mics, poetry slams. It brings back a time and a place that I can literally never go back to. But I can use what I learned there for what I make in the future.
And that’s led me to my goal here: brand a cafe with that authenticity that only Wanderer’s had, but look professional and put-together. How do you find the homeliness off a very local coffee shop molded by the patrons themselves over years and years? How do you design something with that much soul? My solution was to put a little bit of mine in it, in the form of a tribute to Mama Duck.
I started, as I always do, in my sketchbook, drawing pages upon pages of ducks, both from reference and in real life. I then explored different styles of rendering out the duck and ducklings, analyzing the visual connotations of each version I drew out. Some were too standoffish, some were too childish, then I found the one that worked. The font was a little difficult to find, there is an abundance of free handwriting fonts out there, but a shortage of good ones of usable quality. Happy Fox by Lauryn Green fit the bill perfectly. After jumbling the letters around a bit, I struck a balance between the ducks and the type that I found to be very pleasing, putting emphasis on the name first, but quickly drawing the eye out to see Mama Duck standing around with her ducklings. It has a hand-made, personal feel, but hand-made by someone who knows what they’re doing and has a lot of heart invested in the drawing. I tried to channel my inner Matisse, his line sketches are mind-blowing in their simplicity and elegance, qualities I strive for in all my design work. I feel I hit those marks well here.
Mama Duck’s Cafe was a labor of love. It’s a snapshot of who I am as a person, reflected in design. That may seem a little heavy or melodramatic, but that kind of authenticity is what I try to bring out in every brand that I design. Every company has a personality and this project was very much an exercise in translating that personality into a visual form.
I believe that design is art. And art has a lot of pain. There are different kinds of pain; loss, nostalgia, heartbreak…but only by facing what is painful can we ever really get through it. Sometimes the process of art involves transforming pain into something beautiful, something inspiring, something meaningful. And that’s what Mama Duck’s Cafe means to me. I am very proud of my work here and feel that it represents some of my best ideas and execution and by far displays the most passion I’ve ever put into a design project. It was exhausting but satisfying and I would do it again in a heartbeat.