Spotlight: Local artist designs Java House logo


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The smell of coffee beans roasting wafts through the air. It goes past the counter toward the customers sitting on comfy couches and antique chairs reading books, talking, or writing. Claudia McGehee observes every aspect of the room and its contents, taking pictures and writing specific details to use as a resource later.

McGehee uses her notes and artistic talent to design cups, posters, cup sleeves, and stickers for local coffee shop the Java House.

McGehee’s inspiration for her illustrations is the Java House itself — a coffeehouse for people to meet and have a good time.

“Every society has to have a good coffee shop,” she said. “It’s unique as far as coffeehouses go.”

When designing, she keeps in mind key words she feels the Java House represents: relaxation, conversation, and experience. She also draws inspiration from the different places coffee beans grow.

McGehee uses Java House itself for many of her designs. She includes customers she sees in the establishment, along with specific people she knows, such as the owner Tara Cronbaugh, and pieces of the antique furniture can be found hidden in the designs every so often.

McGehee likes to sneak in opened eyes in her drawings to tie in coffee keeping customers awake. The color scheme used is inspired by the colors of the Tiffany-style lamps placed throughout the coffee house.

“At first glance, the juxtaposition of dark and light is simple and pleasing, but a closer look reveals all kinds of detail,” said Niki Neems, a friend of McGehee’s and the owner of RSVP. “The cups are similar in that they serve as a brand for Java House but also accurately portray the culture and community of the coffeehouse in their details.”

McGehee has been designing since 1993. She majored in anthropology at Central Washington University but always loved to draw. It wasn’t until she moved to the Midwest that she decided to get involved with designing.

In addition to designing for Java House, McGehee is also famous for her children’s books — both writing and illustrating. She began writing in 2003, and she has since released A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet and Where Do Birds Live?

In both her books and Java House designs, the local artist uses a unique style of art — a technique called scratchboard. It is a black board that when scratched, reveals white. Her method is to create the design on paper and trace it onto the scratchboard with white chalk. She then spends around 10 hours scratching it out with an X-Acto knife.

“It’s like I’m making a sculpture,” said McGehee. “I’m taking things away a little at a time.”

Once the design is complete, Java House sends it to the company that puts the illustration on the cups. It takes around three months to receive the cups from the manufacturers. A new design is created every 12 to 24 months.

“We love [the designs] so much,” Cronbaugh said. “It shows passion and uniqueness. It shows our experience and our local Iowa City feel.”

Cronbaugh called McGehee to redevelop the logo and later asked her to work on new coffee cup designs. McGehee has made illustrations for each coffee based on its origin, including St. Louis Blues, Mystery Espresso, and Kenya AA.

When McGehee is walking down the street and sees a Java House cup in someone’s hand, a smile creeps across her face. Projects such as the ones she designs for Java House remind her why she loves her career.

“When I get to sit down and draw, that’s when I remember what I am,” she said. “An artist.”

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