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

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