Eugenia Tai: Branding & visual design for PAIR Cupworks
“We hope to spread happiness through coffee and tea”
A precocious-looking illustrated character peeks out from behind a coffee cup. Meanwhile, a wee face in a droplet of coffee is suspended above another wee face in a droplet of cream—each poised and ready to deliver a kiss upon their inevitable impact. Illustrated teapots are seen in various iterations: lounging peacefully, walking gracefully or leaping with glee alongside their companion, the tea leaf. All these whimsical characters live in a simplistic solid-color landscape of bright primary and pastel colors and playful, circus-balloon typography.
For designer, artist, business partner Eugenia Tai, PAIR is both a noun and a verb. She and partner Kimhak Em run PAIR Cupworks in downtown Mesa: a specialty coffee and tea shop that shares space with a craft cidery. The pairing of Kimhak’s culinary background and roasting experience and Eugenia’s talent in ceramics and design results in delightful and delicious results.
As their name suggests, there is more than one singular element at play in the crafting of a beverage—the pairing of flavors and textures and ingredients, as well as the experience of drinking the beverage. For example, they believe the cup itself, which is often an afterthought, should be a primary consideration: “a certain feel in your hand can be really important to your experience of drinking.”
Yet another pairing grew organically from a friendship between Kimhak and the two brothers who run the cidery. Like-minded about experimenting with new flavors, PAIR and Cider Corps have continual beverage collaborations as well as sharing the space.
I spoke with Eugenia on behalf of AIGA Arizona to learn more about her branding and creative work:
J: “You’ve created these whimsical characters to activate the visual design of the packaging and brand identity. Do you have names for them?”
E: “(Laughing) Ha, no, just ‘the cup, the carafe, the bean.” The cup is based on this pink IKEA mug we have hanging around here, and the carafe is based on an actual carafe we use in the shop, and well, a bean is a bean. Coffee grows kind of like this, as a pair (holding her hands in two fists and pressed together) and I thought, well, that is our name, PAIR, and wouldn’t be fun to have two beans as a kind of mascot?”
J: “What are your visual design influences?”
E: “For the branding of this company specifically, I was pulling a lot of influence from Japanese snack packaging. They always seem to have some kind of character that is kind of cute. I’m also pulling from some of my childhood influences, such as the Sanrio character, you know, Hello Kitty and all those guys…I’m trying to pull inspiration from nostalgia. One of our goals with the packaging is to try and create happiness; keep things light and even child-like.”
“I’m trying to pull inspiration from nostalgia.”
J: “It’s kind of wonderful to see the sleek and elegant blacks and browns and neutrals of the coffee and the cupware, and have that all be activated by the bright colors and the lighthearted illustrated characters.”
E: “The main requirement from my partner was that it not be plain—it must be very colorful!”
J: “Okay, when do you plan to bring back those excellent black and white tee shirts with the teapot that looks like the Dalek from Dr. Who and the single-cup coffee dripper carafes running about in horror? Tell me about the priorities for your design work for PAIR.
E: “Yes, we have had many requests to bring that one back! I want to get back to tee shirts and ceramics. However the priority is when Kimhak is ready to release a new coffee—and he does two or three new ones every month—I need to generate a new label for those. So that is ongoing work that keeps me busy. Also, we have subscriptions about to be offered on the website, and I”ll need to design that module. At the same time, there is a lot of pressure to get back to the tee shirts! I wouldn’t say these are hard deadlines—one of the nice things about being an owner is that you can set your own schedule.”
“…one of the nice things about being an owner is that you can set your own schedule.”
Julia: “I understand you started in graphic design and illustration, and of course you also are an accomplished ceramics artist (which was originally the emphasis of PAIR Cupworks). At the same time, your 9–5 job is being a structural engineer. Can you tell me how and why you can bounce between these disciplines, and do you see yourself now concentrating on one thing?”
“Do what you like, and do what makes you happy”
Eugenia: “I do think that I just get bored, [LOL]. So, the bouncing between these different kinds of work will likely continue. I think that you can get bogged down mentally doing one thing, and it’s healthy to switch gears. One thing I want people to come away with from this article is: do what you like, and do what makes you happy. If that means bouncing between three things, then so be it.”
J: “Tell me about structural engineering and what turns you on about it?”
E: “[Laughing] Maybe you’ll understand this: I got out of art because I got tired of so much subjectivity around every aspect of the work. It’s fun to be creative, but in serving the client, after a while it seems less and less about that creativity. I met some engineers who inspired me to want to know how the world works. So I switched to structural engineering. After a while I realized that there’s plenty of subjectivity in that kind of work, too. There are many ways to go about doing something. You would think it’s all numbers, but really there are so many judgment calls.”
“There are many ways to go about doing something.”
J: “How did you get into ceramics?”
E: “Honestly, I just took a class in ceramics and loved it so much. I have my own wheel and kiln, and I had a studio setup here last year—but it has now turned into a coffee storage room, haha! We have some growth plans for the coffee business and we are hoping to get a production space soon. I have a lot of teapot ideas that I want to get going. I just don’t have the time right now!”
J: “So what do you really want to do, say in this next year?”
E: “I like my job in engineering, so I have no plans to stop that. At Pangolin Structural I have moved into more of a management role in my department, which is construction engineering; we also do a lot of projects from the ground up. We are a majority woman-owned business. Our focus as a company is to go beyond just making a building safe: we use systems engineering and operations research to not only plan better and more efficiently, but to also find synergies with architects and build partners on how best to go about the project.
J: “You mentioned you and Kimhak have some growth plans for PAIR.”
E: “I hope that, if all goes well, we will have another store. At present we are hoping to move at least the production to a side room at the cidery.”
J: “I bet that will be wonderful, and of course will bring back your space for ceramics. Are you sleeping on coffee beans right now?”
E: “Well, I step on them all the time!”
J: “Tell me about the relationship with Cider Corps. How does the working agreement benefit you both?
E: “We work collaboratively with the guys at Cider Corps and have similar values. Kimhak met them when they used to frequent the shop he was working at, at the same time that he was beginning to really develop his roasting skills by joining competitions and getting involved. Their cidery is only open at 3pm, so we saw an opportunity to use the space in the morning and all day. We both have the same passion for interesting flavors, for the high quality of the beverage and the ingredients. We have collaborated on some cold brew offerings with them.
J: “What are you looking forward to the most?”
E: “When we move production into a bigger space, I really believe that new things will start happening. A lot of time we are waiting for our two companies to align, and so it’s really exciting when the time is finally right to move forward together. Their scale of production is much larger than ours, so when we have more capacity, we will be able to do more of these collaborations. Now you got me all excited to tell you that I can’t wait until we have a bit of a larger bar because we are planning to sell soft serve ice cream! We already have a ton of ideas.”
Speaking of growth plans:
There’s no doubt we can expect more inspiring creative work and flavor pairings from Eugenia and Kimhak. At the very end of our interview, Eugenia dropped the reveal: they expect the arrival of a son or daughter next month!
Even though the dictionary says that “pair” means two, as of yet, there are no plans to change the name…
You can contact Eugenia through their website: www.paircupworks.com