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Putting the thrill back into espresso machines.

Putting the thrill back into espresso machines

I am fond of the coffee industry for a good number of reasons, foremost because I like the taste of a good coffee. I am eclectic in my leanings, and relish various origins, light and dark roasts, regular and espresso coffees. Something else I admire about coffee, its aura. Coffee has a certain value that escapes quantification, ironic in an industry habituated to figuring. Coffee has value as part of the very texture of our respective cultures and inestimable worth when any person pauses over a cup of pleasurable coffee in a pleasant cafe somewhere in space.

For such reasons, coffee can lend itself to philosophy and art, almost as readily as to trading and roasting. Our ideas of what a cafe should look like, of how `coffee' packages, cups, saucers, spoons, tables, books and machines are to shaped and decorated thereby assumes a little extra vitality. Everything people see or use in connection with coffee in their usual, or unusual, routine can thus be held up to a critical light, and can be the subject of imaginative efforts. This has been true for the past three centuries, and I hope it will always be true for as long as people enjoy coffee.

A visual thrill to match the thrill of an espresso coffee taste, that is exactly what Kees Van der Westen has in mind. Van der Westen is a young Dutchman who has turned his abilities to the `look' of the high altar of the contemporary cafe, the espresso machine. I am not certain what Van der Westen calls his profession, but a few years ago in the U.S. he'd have been known as an industrial designer, meaning that he sat in Detroit dreaming up the fins on 1958 Chryslers. The term is unfair to Van der Westen because his work is the antithesis of mass production. There is a Renaissance spirit to his workship, near Eindhoven in southern Netherlands; and at least in spirit, what he does to espresso machines is not that different from what Cellini did to salt servers.

In any case, let's say that Van der Westen fuses art and technology to bring new life to the exterior of very practical, very work-a-day espresso machines. He's been doing so for the past five years, since finishing his technical design studies. His work, he says, picks up where the Italian masters of early post-war espresso machine design left off prior to 1960; "It is a great pity that the Italians have allowed the design of one of their most typical Italian products to fade away into total neutrality," exclaims Van der Westen. "Espresso machines now look like oversized shoe boxes."

For Van der Westen, the espresso machine is a miniature coffee factory, everything happens inside, the exterior is architecture - and it ought to be great architecture. As a result, he builds espresso machine creations on commission only, and each unit can take from three to four months to construct by hand. Every part is designed and built by Van der Westen himself, only the technical espresso parts - boiler, taps, pressure regulator, etc. - are acquired from the official importers of well-known Italian espresso makers. Each creation uses the parts from only one espresso machine manufacturer, although a unit may contain parts from more than one model. The respective machine importers will take care of installation, service and guarantee of the finished machine.

In `sculpting' the exterior of the machines, Van der Westen uses steel, marble, glass, granite, chrome, even gold. Each one is totally unique, and the design elements range from an elegant use of classical modern lines to playful extravanganzas of light and entertainment. From small to enormous, each unit includes a mill, and will range from the simplest lever-type system to the most advanced touch systems.

Creativeness bears a price, and Van der Westen is not shy of quoting as much as $50,000 for a particularly elaborate espresso machine construction. To date he has created 12, for cafes, advertising agencies, architects and coffee service companies (see "Laurentis" as shown). The price factor has, admittedly, been somewhat stifling for this ardent `espressionist,' leading him to formulate an additional, secondary range of designer styles. These espresso machines will incorporate less expensive materials and thus can be less costly.

PHOTO : Kees Van der Westen draws his own espresso from his own "Zephyr" a relatively small, but elegant expresso machine which he built with a winglike slab of white carrara marble as a front piece.

PHOTO : Example of `espresso furniture,' Van der Westen's Infuso di Caffe Idocompresso." The double unit stands on 21 adjustable legs.

PHOTO : The "Laurentis" was built for the Dutch total-espresso service company of the same name. Here Van der Westen included tube lights inside the curving glass plates that react to pressure in the boiler, so that the espresso machine pulses with life as it works.
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Author:Bell, Jonathan
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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