Handsome Coffee Roasters cafe design

Graphic images that serve as icons for Handsome Coffee Roasters were laser-etched into subway tile made of wood. The design team from WoodSmithe milled maple and glued the tiles to the wall, sans grout, for another touch of the handcrafted. (Nina Hans / October 3, 2012)

A name like Handsome Coffee Roasters doesn’t provide much aesthetic leeway, does it? The new coffee shop in the Arts District really had no choice but to manifest itself in a charming and attractive manner. In the hands of WoodSmithe, a woodworking and design studio on the other side of the L.A. River, traditional cafe materials have become a refreshing expression of craft — including an unusual wood tile that’s truly living up to the Handsome name.

For a hint that Handsome Coffee  is not your typical cafe, simply look at the menu: only three drinks — no exceptions — and no sugar on the premises.

“We’re really trying to redefine the experience,” co-founder Tyler Wells said. “But you can't change the conversation if it looks like the same coffee shop.” At the same time, though, Wells said the founders wanted a few hints that Handsome was an utterly familiar destination: “The general store, the neighborhood outpost, a place where the staff knows your name.”

Without resorting to a stereotypically nostalgic Victorian vibe, WoodSmithe borrowed the era’s materials — think subway tile, steel fixtures — and tweaked the execution.

“We wanted to echo that sentiment with natural, simple materials but execute them in a coffee bar that was a modern, clean space,” said Nathanael Balon, lead designer at WoodSmithe.

So copper, for example, shows up unexpectedly on ceiling panels and counter tops, echoing the finish of the weathered roaster from Belgium. And silky maple — aged by WoodSmithe with a vinegar wash — adds the warmth of wood but with a surprisingly contemporary texture.

But it wasn’t until Balon considered solutions for an empty wall facing Handsome’s restrooms that he saw a potential connection between two finishes: tile and wood.

Using a standard rectangular white ceramic tile as a pattern, Balon milled the aged maple and began experimenting with how to install subway tile made of wood. In the end, he glued it directly onto the drywall and chose not to use grout, a decision that produced a cleaner look (but left no room for error). The result is almost like a milky marble: Only when you get up close do you realize it’s wood. That’s the point, Balon said. “I was interested in these familiar materials but using them in a surprising way.”

The tiles produced such an intriguing texture, WoodSmithe decided to reward Handsome customers with even more detail. Handsome’s graphic identity, designed by JP Crosby at the firm Ptarmak, includes a dozen illustrated “Handsome items” — a manly beard, a rack of antlers, a campfire and more — that WoodSmithe hoped to introduce gently into the space. The solution became to laser-etch the graphics onto random tiles, creating a subtle sense of discovery, said Nina Hans, WoodSmithe’s art director.

“I’ve seen people reaching out and touching them, and Instagramming each one,” she said.

The tiles have garnered such attention that WoodSmithe is experimenting with various woods, shapes and finishes in the hopes of developing the products for the consumer market. The firm is documenting the process on its Woodsmithe blog and said it will post prices and more information soon. Meanwhile, if you’d like your own personal graphic identity emblazoned on your cabinets, fabrication co-ops such as the Knowhow Shop in Highland Park can offer guidance and rental of a laser etcher.

We welcome story suggestions at home@latimes.com. For an easy way to follow the L.A. scene, bookmark L.A. at Home and join us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.