Café Society: private practice, public space

Presented by: Dr. Carla Cesare

Café Society: private practice, public space. The term public interiors conjures up images of public spaces, shared spaces, the crossing of lives, paths, the new and old, familiar and unfamiliar. As cities evolved and modernity ensued, space, along with its uses and practices, loosened its boundaries to become amorphous, evolving along with society. In particular cafés are an excellent example of how public and private spaces intersect spatially, formally and in practice. Their history is embedded in urban development with certain cities taking on café culture as part of their identity. Paris, Vienna and Milan in particular were impacted by urban planning and social change creating an environment that would not only create café culture, but sustain it. Whether Hausmann’s Parisian boulevards, the Viennese Ringstrasse or the gallerias of Milan each café culture reflected these larger changes that would become ubiquitous to its culture. The idea of an indoor/outdoor, public yet familiar space has crossed the boundaries of use, interiority and practice to not only define cities, but alter social expectations and define cultures. Particular styles of furniture, layout and materials have become ubiquitous with Paris, Vienna or Milan. Cafés in these cities have historical relevance in terms of its visual and social culture. In the United States the eighteenth century coffee houses of revolution eventually disappeared until they late twentieth century with the inception of Starbucks coffee chains. Now cities often have national and local chains, as well as individually owned coffee shops. They have altered consumption and social practices along with expectation of urban spaces just as occurred in Paris, Vienna and Milan; yet, these are a different set of experiences and impacts. As Ashby notes café life allowed modernity to creep into the city (2009, 29), this leads to the question—to what extent in the twentieth century does the private move into the public as place and practice, and what is the role of a city in defining their specific modernity? This research will analyze the historic developments and differences in city café cultures and look at that of New Haven, Connecticut—considered to be the cultural capital of the state, largely due the influence of Yale University. In this presentation the historical development of European cafés in relationship to urban growth will be considered along with an analysis of the city of New Haven and its recent café evolution specifically related to their impact on urban spaces and the public and private practices. It will examine the changing expectation that citizens have of their cities in relation to public/private space, the boundaries of these spaces and the ‘flipping’ of interior objects into public arenas. Also investigated is the impact of social practices in these spaces. The relationship of public and private interior is central here not just in terms of the domestic/commercial—but the individual with society at large.


  • Ashby, Charlotte. ‘The Cafés of Vienna: Space and Sociability.’ In The Viennese Café and Fin-de-Siècle Culture, edited by Charlotte Ashby, Tag Gronberg and Simon Shaw Miller, 9- 31. New York: Berghahn Books, 2013.
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