CH5: Creative Hangouts

Research from a study published in Psychological Science suggests that a messy desk may stimulate creativity and generation of ideas in some people. We're not sure if this is a chicken-or-egg type of situation — are you creative because your desk is messy, or is your desk messy because you're a creative type? — but what anyone with a laptop and a brain can tell you is that some settings are simply better for getting those creative juices flowing.

Whether you're looking for an alternative workspace to your office, or are on the lookout for a regular haunt to base your freelance operations, here are some CH-certified picks of some of the city's top creative hangouts for independent working or casual meetings that will save you the distraction of Taylor Swift sobbing through the stereo. And, take note, starving artists: we've thrown in some free public spaces in there, too.

1984 Bookstore

11 Hunang Lu, near Wukang Lu

1984 Bookstore, which doubles up as a cafe, sits on Hunan Lu with plenty of quirk and quiet. It's ideal for those looking for a place to read, work and have a momentary respite from the daily grind. The place is usually dotted with people reading, working and generally lazing about. 1984 doesn't have the social ambience and carbon copy design of places like Starbucks and Costa Coffee, which may be exactly what you're looking for if you're a creative type looking for a wifi-enabled place to work and chill.

There's also an extensive, albeit disorganized collection of English and Chinese classics that forms an informal book swap system for customers. Most of the books for sale are the ones you were probably forced to read in high school and college, plus a smaller selection of contemporary bestsellers. The food and drink selection here is pretty limited, but they do serve fresh juices, smoothies and pretty decent coffee. The spacious courtyard houses the occasional roaming cat, and a collection of artwork and awesome posters decorates the walls within. One of our favorites: a sign just outside the courtyard that says: "Big Brother is Watching You". Kind of creepy. But also kind of cool.

Chi Art Space

1/F, 300 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Huangpi Nan Lu

Chi Art Space, located on the ground floor of K11 Art Mall, has a nice workshop and study space in the far left corner of the room. It's basically got the feel of a library, but without the stuffy smell or glare of disapproving librarians to deal with. A bookshelf filled with art journals and magazines spans the entire length of the wall, and a couple of long tables are open for sitting around and reading, or for meeting and chatting with like-minded artsy types. We've also seen plenty of pensive-looking squatters staring off into the distance too.

K11 also hosts regular workshops and talks by local artists here, both in English and Chinese. It's part of an exhibition space, so food and drink aren't really welcome, but we've also seen some folks here with a thermos or to-go cup of coffee in hand. In any case, the space is free to use, so you can't really complain if you're asked to finish your coffee elsewhere before settling in. Being part of a mega mall, Chi Art Space also comes with easy access to tons of other quick and (mostly) affordable F&B options, so you can get all your needs covered without ever having to depart from the cooling comforts of the AC.

Seesaw Cafe

Room 101, 433 Yuyuan Lu, near Wulumuqi Lu

Within walking distance of Jing’an Temple is Seesaw Cafe, a courtyard coffee shop nestled inside of the Jing’an Design Center, that hub of creative companies housed down an alleyway on Yuyuan Lu. Seesaw has stylish, minimalist decor, really friendly staff and one of the most solid coffee selections we've seen in the city. The folks here take their coffee pretty seriously, importing their beans from Guatemala, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yunnan province. The cafe also stocks Strictly Cookies and small individual portions of homemade French desserts like fruit tarts and millefeuille.

Both indoor and "outdoor" seating in a large courtyard are available, but since this courtyard area is covered with a high glass rooftop, you get lots of sunshine without coming into direct contact with the sun's rays. Seesaw Cafe also hosts a lot of events -- such as the monthly Likemind coffee social for creatives, or the occasional gathering for those with niche interests (we've seen a massive doll collectors' conference held here before) -- and the baristas even offer introductory classes and “latte art” competitions for creating designs and patterns in the foam topping of coffee beverages. Free wifi, too, of course.

Song Fang Mansion de Thé

227 Yongjia Lu, near Shanxi Nan Lu

For those who don't like coffee, Song Fang Maison de Thé is a former French Concession lane house that's been converted into a tea salon with free wifi and plenty of seating. It was created in 2007 by native Parisian Florence Samson, a current Shanghai resident who wanted to share her love of good tea. The first floor consists of a retail space that showcases Song Fang’s signature blue tea canisters, as well as all manner of bells and whistles for preparing these fancy schmancy teas (in both Western and Chinese tea preparation styles). We love the winding wooden staircase to the second floor, which has an impressive display of colorful old-school vintage tin cans brought in from Northern China.

The second floor is a spacious and well-lit room decorated with empty birdcages hanging from the ceiling and floral printed wicker chairs and sofas -- all really nice touches. The menu's selection of 70 Chinese and French teas is pretty overwhelming at first, but one of our favorites remains China Blue, a rich and creamy blend of white tea with notes of coconut, blackberry and orange. Song Fang also serves an assortment of homemade French cakes, cookies and ice cream. Overall, an excellent work space for those looking for extreme peace and quiet with simple, elegant decor to surround them.

Red Town

570 Huaihai Xi Lu, near Hongqiao Lu

Red Town, that small mecca of galleries, exhibition spaces and creative offices waaay west on Huaihai Xi Lu, isn't really a conventional work spot, but if working at a desk isn't an absolute must for you, then the center of this space has a fantastic, large grassy lawn that's great for reading, relaxing, doodling, picnicing and whatever else that people without wifi do these days. Weekends see a lot of young families using the space much like they would a park, so you might see a few screaming children and frisbees whizzing about on Saturdays and Sundays.

From Monday to Friday, Red Town's public spaces make a great place for casual meetings and quietly working off the grid. It's especially nice in the spring months, when the sunshine surrounds you and makes even the weird, alarmingly angular sculptures punctuating the grass look kind of pretty. Galleries such as the Minsheng Art Museum line the place -- not to mention small boutiques, cafes and restaurants -- so weaving in and out of exhibits before settling in on the lawn could be an additional source of inspiration.



Written in conjunction with CH contributing writer Daniel Alter

Photography by Brandon McGhee