Looking for avocado toast, a macchiato, a mimosa, a chic mountain vibe in a cozy, cabin-like cafe downwind of Chautauqua in one of Boulder’s oldest neighborhoods? You’ll wind up at Alpine Modern Café at 9th and College Ave., a design theory, dream of Lon McGowan, 37 (and his wife, Lauren) turned stone, wood and coffee.
“We weren’t finding what we wanted in Boulder,” Lon says of the in-bred design aesthetic of his college town to which he returned in 2011 after making it big as an entrepreneur in Seattle. He still runs the overseas manufacturing firm he founded in 2001.
This alpine design vision started as a small retail shop in 2013, the LON Little Shop, which first claimed a spot in the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and soon moved to a tiny space just north of Pearl Street Mall on 13th Street. It has since blossomed into a growing online brand, a quarterly magazine (which ended in 2016 after an 18-month run) and two full-fledged locations: the cafe-focused location on The Hill that opened in 2015 and the retail + coffee shop on Pearl Street in the new Pearl West building, which opened in 2016.
As a city of such impeccable design, from architecture to the inimitable Flatirons to the incredible density of design shops of all kinds, Boulder swings with a heavyweight designer’s power — Alpine Modern, in a way, seeks to embody Boulder’s incredible design legacy and further it as an idea.
Encountering Alpine Modern through its website, stores or past issues of its magazine, its aesthetic becomes immediately clear: a meticulous, high attention to detail, clean, simple, somewhat bold, a strong Scandinavian modern sensibility evoking trees, mountains and the animals that live among them.
As Lon describes it, Alpine Modern embodies a tension between the natural and manmade, inspired by the mountains. Leather paired with glass, felt paired with metals. A balance between cold stone and fire, wool warmth, clean lines. An aesthetic fitting for a mountain town.
Some of the items you’ll find at Alpine Modern’s retail shop:
- Opinel №06 Carbon pocket knife by Savoie France
- Bags by Milan-based firm Mueslii
- Small wooden figurines of birds and other animals designed by legendary Danish designer Kristian Vedel
- Boardgames by Stockholm-based manufacturer PrintWorks
- Alpine Modern-branded soy candles including the scent Evening Embers, which wafts smell tendrils of “oaked bourbon, warm fire embers, and salted brown sugar caramel” into your air.
- Kerosene lamps from Swedish lamp-maker Karlskrona lampfabrik.
To make their alpine vision a reality at their downtown shop, Lon and Lauren turned to Boulder interior design and architecture shop Tres Birds Workshop.
Among the alpine design flourishes the firm furnished the space with include “a herringbone patterned bi-folding door from that cantilevers up to reveal the coffee bar during open-hours” and a 15-foot central display table of vertically-sliced hunk of maple above triangular rod supports that give the table a floating feel.
Lon says the impetus to build a brand by and for Boulder has evolved over the years into offering mountain high design to a broader audience, whether that be the tourists who grab brunch at Alpine Modern’s cafe and then pick up a memento at the downtown shop or engaging a larger audience through Instagram and a growing e-commerce component.
“Boulder’s population is smaller than people think,” Lon says. No doubt it can be hard to square the town’s outsized influence — through startups, ideas, the university and its thriving economy — with its actual population. This, in part, has pushed the brand to pursue larger audiences.
Alpine Modern has recently partnered with local artists on items for the retail store such as ceramics and wood and leather pieces, and Lon hopes that collaborative design continues.
Lon and Lauren have designed their life like they do Alpine Modern. Both brand locations are within walking distance of their home in Boulder’s Chautauqua neighborhood.
Like many locals, Lon loves the access to the outdoors that Boulder affords and the diverse age mix of young professionals, university kids and older, successful business leaders. It may be true that Boulder is Aspenizing — becoming ever more exclusive — but the university, proximity to Denver and the airport make it a much different beast than its rarified cousin, Lon says.
Whether it be starting a new business such as Alpine Modern or becoming active value-add investors in the thriving local startup scene, people don’t come to Boulder to retire, but to live.
His hope for Alpine Modern? “We hope we make Boulder look good.”