Voice June 2012 — Extreme Makeover: VaHi Style!

Aurora Coffee owner and local designer collaborate to spruce things up a bit at the landmark Virginia-Highland shop

By: John Becker

Next time you’re enjoying a cup of your favorite java at Aurora Coffee, don’t blame shop owner Madonna Hill if she suddenly lets out with a loud “Move that bus!”

The reason: Hill just completed the first phase of a series of improvements planned for the popular bistro near the corner of North Highland and Virginia avenues, and even Ty Pennington couldn’t be more pleased with the progress.

“So far it’s just new paint and window treatments,” says Hill, “but if what we do next has as much impact as what we’ve done so far, I can’t wait for the next phase!”

Hill and husband Eric Levin have owned the shop for seven years (they also own the Aurora Coffee in Little Five Points, as well as the adjoining Criminal Records). Hill says she’d been thinking about sprucing the place up, but has virtually no budget for improvements and was concerned about cost.

Enter Angelika Taylor, owner of Natty Flats, a consulting, interior design and fabrication company. Taylor, her husband, and two daughters moved to VaHi a year ago from Roswell and immediately dove into a whole-house renovation of the Virginia Avenue property they’d bought.

At the same time, Taylor dove into the community of which she was so excited to be a part. She formed new friendships through her daughters attending Inman Middle School, became involved in community projects – including chairing the 2012 Virginia-Highland Tour of Homes – and started looking for other opportunities to “give back” to the neighborhood she knew her family would receive so much from.

To that end, she set her sights on Aurora Coffee.

A self-described “coffee snob” and Aurora regular, Taylor had an appreciation for what the shop offered, but knew the customer experience could be enhanced.

“The coffee and pastries are amazing and the staff is super-friendly,” Taylor explains. “It’s the quintessential small neighborhood hangout. Every morning there’s such a diverse mix of people: businessmen and women, moms and dads, teens and college kids. The location’s great and it’s definitely one of the anchors of Virginia-Highland.”

But while Taylor didn’t doubt the staff’s ability to brew a savory cup of joe or serve up a tasty blueberry scone, she felt the store was in desperate need of a facelift.

“It lacked comfort and coziness and needed something to make it hip and give it a fun, coffee shop vibe,” Taylor says.

The interior walls were white and the trim a nondescript beige, so Taylor knew fresh paint – in colors that would create the ambiance she was seeking – would help, and at a reasonable cost.

“Fresh paint provides the most ‘bang for the designing buck’ and the quickest noticeable difference,” Taylor says.

At the same time, there were features of the shop Taylor wanted to preserve.

“There’s a beautiful industrial steel bar/counter, lots of windows and plenty of light,” Taylor says, “and I knew these were features that would work well with the new colors.”

Taylor picked out a few fabrics and came up with a window treatment style she felt enhanced the exterior of the shop and also warmed up the interior. Along with the new paint, it was a simple scheme and could be done at relatively low cost.

Taylor’s next step was to pitch her ideas to Hill. After a quick phone call, Hill was intrigued so the two agreed to meet.

“I’d never dealt with a professional designer before,” Hill says, “and Angelika just made the whole process so easy. She came in with colors and fabric samples and ideas I’d never even thought of.”

Hill was anxious to proceed but still concerned about how much she’d have to spend. To keep costs to a minimum, Hill decided to use her staff to do the painting. Taylor provided consulting and fabrication services gratis and materials at cost.

“As an Aurora customer,” Taylor says, “and more importantly as a Virginia-Highland resident, I wanted this to be my ‘give back to the community’ project. At the same time, it meant a lot to me that Madonna would take money out of her own pocket for the paint and other materials and even have her own staff do the painting.”

There’s rumor of a coffee-for-design-services barter deal, but neither party would disclose the exact terms of the arrangement.

“On this basis, phase one was affordable,” Hill says, “so we dove in head-first!”

Over the next few weeks Hill’s staff used off-hours to do the painting. The molding and trim are now black and the walls an off-white. What used to be a loud orange wall behind the front counter is now a soothing ‘moody’ blue. The front door frame has also been painted the same soft blue color.

Taylor created the custom window treatments herself – fabric and hardware – and met Hill at the shop late one night to do the installation.

“Angelika’s pretty impressive with a drill and a hacksaw, let me tell you,” Hill says.

Aurora’s owner is thrilled with the outcome of the first round of improvements.

“As you can see, Angelika really understands our vibe and what we’re all about,” Hill says. “I think that’s why we work so well together.”

The improvements have gotten positive reviews from the shop’s staff and customers, too.

“The new colors are very calming and create a more relaxed atmosphere for both the customers and us,” says barista Teresa. “It’s cozy and home-like.”

“I think they did a great job making the improvements around things that were already here like the metallic bar,” says barista Virginia. “It’s modern but, at the same time, classic – the colors aren’t masculine or feminine so everyone can enjoy them. I especially like the relaxing blue here behind the counter.”

Aurora regular Kris Coluro Smith’s impressed, too.

“The new and improved Aurora is amazing,” Smith says. “It’s a very relaxed, serene setting. Perfect for sipping my skinny, single shot, decaf latte and enjoying a quick break from my two little girls! It just looks fresh and new – a great improvement from the outdated drab orange paint that was there.”

Any future improvements in the works?

“We want to add a community bulletin board toward the rear of the store,” Taylor says, “and I’d also like to work on the big window on the left as you walk in where the bench is. It would be cool to throw some fabric at that for the visual effect. And we definitely plan to put some art on the walls, hopefully from local artists.”

Updated furniture, additional exterior painting and possibly some plants and landscaping could also be in the works, but nothing’s been decided upon yet.

“We don’t have a budget for this work right now, so we’ll definitely be taking it slow,” says Hill, “but, whatever it is, I can’t wait to start the next project.”

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