Gild the Illy

For one Italian coffee company, espresso was always an art form. The only thing missing was a cup to match. Not any more, says David Baker

Earlier this month, the great and good of the Paris art world gathered at the city's Palais de Tokyo to see some new pieces by Louise Bourgeois.

The main part of the exhibition, Le Jour la Nuit le Jour, which runs until 24 November, is a sculpture, sound and video installation. Bourgeois, 91, was unable to make it in person, but through cloth-covered speakers we heard her singing nursery rhymes from her childhood and asking questions ("Who made the day and the night?"; "Why does the touch of my friend's hand give me pleasure?"). The effect was playful, engaging and, as always with Bourgeois, a little mysterious.

The exhibition also marked the unveiling of another work by Bourgeois: four espresso cups, painted in pink and baby blue and bearing questions and statements such as: "Has the day invaded the night or has the night invaded the day?"; and "Art is no guaranty [sic] of sanity." While the installation was very much High Art, the cups were destined for a production run of 100,000 for homes and cafés across Europe. (A fifth Bourgeois cup, featuring the slogan "Je t'aime, Je t'aime" was also issued as a limited-edition of just 3,000.)

The cups were commissioned by Illycaffè, the Trieste-based coffee company, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Illy Collection – a series of beautifully decorated espresso cups, launched in 1992, which now represents more than 40 ranges by an ever-increasing roster of artists including Jeff Koons, Jannis Kounellis, Robert Rauschenberg, Sandro Chia and David Byrne. The collection has become enormously popular with coffee drinkers and collectors alike. The cups retail for about £50 to £60 for a set of six and are now as recognisably Illy as the company's red and silver logo.

According to Andrea Illy, current CEO and grandson of Illycaffè's founder, the idea of producing cups came about because the company wanted to improve what he calls the "ritual" of drinking coffee. "We wanted to add an extra dimension to the coffee experience," he says, "which is made up primarily of flavour and scent perception – an additional sense: sight. The way to do that was to design a cup that was noble and nice." It also had to be the perfect blank canvas.

German architect Matteo Thun landed the commission in 1992 and, for his pains, was handed a 70-page brief outlining Illycaffè's criteria. What he came up with was a simple white espresso cup and saucer that looked good, kept the coffee hot without burning your lips and could be stacked (essential for the espresso bars that are Illy's main outlets).

That, however, was only the first step. Once the cup was designed, Illy offered it out to the contemporary art world as a tiny blank canvas. Six artists submitted designs and the result, Illy Collection #1, was a set of brightly coloured espresso cups brought together under the title Arti e Mestieri (Arts and Crafts) that went on sale – and sold out almost immediately – just before Christmas the same year.

Six more collections followed, as well as a handful of single-cup commissions. Soon, these limited-edition collections started changing hands for sizeable sums of money (rare single cups have been known to sell on the Internet auction site eBay for £100 or more) and became an essential fixture in homes from Helsinki to Catania. Almost by accident, Illycaffè had become a company associated as much with contemporary art as with quality coffee.

It was then, Andrea Illy says, that the company decided to enter "the second stage of the adventure". "We found a clash between the 'new soul' of the company driven by art, and the 'previous soul', which was driven by technology. So we made our logo softer [the new design is by James Rosenquist] and began doing something to help the art community. It is very hard for a young artist to succeed, so we looked for young talent we could support – not only through the Illy Collection, but also through scholarships and projects with schools."

Before long Illy was working directly with art schools to produce, naturally enough, espresso cup collections. A Central St Martins collection came out in 2000, one from New York's PS1 a year later, and for 2003, says Illy, the company will be working with "some academies" in Italy. At the same time the company is putting serious money into art exhibitions such as the Bourgeois show in Paris.

As an unquoted company, Illycaffè is not required to disclose detailed accounts and it's hard to put a figure on how much all this non-coffee activity costs. Producing beautiful cups may not particularly boost sales of coffee – even though each collection comes with a tin of the Illy espresso blend – and harder-nosed business types may wonder why the company doesn't just put its money into advertising instead. But, in public at any rate, Illy likes to portray itself as being involved in something larger than simple profit and loss. Asked if a marketing man would feel the cost of the Illy Collections were justified, Andrea Illy is mischievously philosophical. "It depends how open-minded the marketing man is," he says. "Goodness is very difficult to express, but beauty is the metaphysical state of goodness and beauty is by definition expressed by art. I think even a marketing man could understand that."

Illy Collection cups, all signed and numbered, are available from bars and other outlets selling Illy products and from the website www.illy.com

Above: Illy Collection design by Louise Bourgeois. Below from left: Emmanuel Nassar; Elizabeth Zawada; Nelson Leirner. Below right: Sandro Chia. Stack from top: Francesco Illy; Luca Missoni; Matteo Thun; Paolo Cervi Kervischer; Maurizio Cargnelli; and Cosimo Fusco

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
News
people
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape