"I honestly don't know why anyone uses four legged stools any more", Steve Laub says. "A lot of cafes these days seem to be on sloping blocks, so if you have a three legged stool it's not going to rock." Perhaps an often overlooked item by many, something like this is trivial for the carpenter/furniture designer and awesome bloke behind Porter & Maple. I met up with him recently, and after expressing my admiration of his 1958 Bedford truck (see picture below), got down to talking about what he does and the coffee industry in general.
Touring Sydney's cafe scene, you've almost certainly come across some of his work. Steve's repertoire of fit outs includes Artificer, Cavalier, the Five Senses training lab, Saturdays NYC and the recently opened Neighbourhood by Sean McManus to name a few. However, this all came about after ten years of working in the building industry as a residential carpenter, and "jumpin' through hoops" as Steve puts it. "I've got a lot of friends in the coffee industry and I just kind of threw myself out there... The first job I did was Nan's Place in Zetland for [owner] Jodie, at that point I was still doing all my building. I decided to take it on on the side, rented out a little garage, and once that job was finished I tried to hold on to the workshop."
Following that, a few furniture contracts helped Steve break even with paying the rent on the garage. Around two and a half years ago, it got to the point where on top of a 40 hour week of carpentry he was getting 20 hours of after hours work done in his side project. Seeing this as a transition point, he left the carpentry behind and "it all just built up from there."
When starting on a job, discussions with the architects and designers takes place. For Steve, having a bit of input at this stage keeps him more involved with the task. "It keeps you thinking creatively. The architects are always creative, they're constantly thinking of new ideas." With the Five Senses training facility in Stanmore, there was no design plan except for a few sketch ideas. "Brainstorming ideas with Ben Bicknell about how it could be done was interesting. Watching the space transform as each element was finished was crazy, for example once the main bar was done it completely changed the look of the room."
Steve describes the style of Porter & Maple's work at rather minimalist. Wooden panels, polished concrete surfaces and tiles are combined in a fairly simple yet very aesthetic manner. It's not always easy though. A prime example would be the Haydenshapes surf shop in Mona Vale, where the centrepiece of the store was a 600kg concrete counter. With the concrete being poured by Duncan from Concrete Bespoke, Steve's job was to create the mold and help get it inside. "Figuring out the dimensions for the mold was the first challenge... Getting it into the store was crazy. It took a few guys to lift it off the dollies and get it into place."
The counter at Haydenshapes. Photo: Mark Rose
Asking Steve about his thoughts on where the industry might be headed, he put forward some interesting ideas. "I think machines are playing more and more of a part in coffee as baristas chase consistency. We've got automated batch brewers and are starting to see automated tampers, I'm not sure if this takes away from the skills of the barista." For someone whose work is a very hands on affair, this perspective makes sense. "However, a lot of coffee companies are connecting with farmers and exposing the work that they contribute to the quality of coffee, and more people are buying 80+ specialty coffee. That can only be a good thing going forwards."
So what's next for Porter & Maple? After employing his first full time staffer Michael Hasler in September last year to help with the workload, it seems like the cafe fitouts aren't going to stop anytime soon. However, Steve's design passion has him hinting at some furniture design in the future. "I'd love to collaborate with different designers and create lines of furniture. For example, having a specific cafe furniture line." No doubt this will include some three legged stools.
From top: The truck. Artificer. Sean McManus behind the bar at Neighbourhood. Artificer long black. Neighbourhood filter coffee.