Pets in the City

Meet the Man Behind El Gato Coffeehouse's Elaborate Cat Bridges

You, too, can catify your house.

By Gwendolyn Knapp June 22, 2018 Published in the July 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Kitty wonderland at El Gato Coffeehouse

James Waters was a Beastie Boys–blaring, Tony Hawk–adoring teen when he got his start in carpentry, building huge skate ramps in his buddies’ Houston backyards in the ’80s and ’90s. By his late twenties, he was designing and building stores for Urban Outfitters, and in 2014 he started his own business, James Waters Creations. Since then he’s taken on diverse projects including local restaurants, horse stables, chicken coops, and murals. But his craziest job yet? Creating the elaborate suspension bridge for the cats at El Gato Coffeehouse in the Heights.

The café’s owner, Renee Reed, told him she was interested in “catification,” a design genre dedicated to pleasing cats, popularized by cafés like El Gato, Pinterest, and the eccentric host of Animal Planet’s My Cat from Hell, Jackson Galaxy.

Reed started researching the trend, finding inspiration in the Cat Café MoCHA in Shibuya, Japan, with its huge plywood tree full of perches and its cat walk made of dangling bird cages. “But,” Waters says, “she didn’t want to build anything like any other cat café.” 

So he designed something truly unique: a ceiling-mounted bridge with midcentury-modern appeal, accompanied by an assortment of dodecahedron-shaped cat heads for felines to curl up in. He spent a month crafting three prototypes, by hand, before going through 600 pounds of Baltic birch—popular in the 1960s, when raw-edged furniture was all the rage—to bring the project to life. Hundreds of small wooden links, almost like a bike chain, keep all the bridge pieces together as they undulate under the cats wandering across.

The design is hip and eco-friendly, and, Waters laughs, “The cats were like, oh, we’re home.”

Given the materials, time, and crafting involved, custom-built bridges are expensive: One built by Waters starts at $5,000, and his custom cat heads go for $250 to $300 a pop. At home Waters stacks them like a totem pole, where his own cats—Ziggy Stardust, Xena Blade, Badger, and Emma—love to lounge and, of course, stalk one another. “If one cat is snoozing below another,” he warns, “they will get attacked.” The only competition for the felines’ attention? The family’s 70-pound pit bull, Kylie. “All cats love her,” says Waters.

For DIYers hoping to catify their homes on a budget, Waters says, “Anything can be turned into something a cat would enjoy.” (Doesn’t your couch just know it?) He suggests experimenting with fabrics, yarns, and shelving. Stacking shelves up to the ceiling is ideal, of course, because if catification has proved anything, it’s that cats very much enjoy looking down on humans.

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