An interview with Mr.Coffee who heads a company that became symbol of the very best of Italian traditions
"I often can predict the flavor of a food or a beverage just by the way it looks. I intuitively pick out the right coffee bar or restaurant based on the sensations I feel. It's called synesthesia". That's how Andrea Illy opens our conversation.
He heads the renowned company that has made a science of coffee, as well as become a symbol of the very best of Italian traditions. Andrea Illy has no doubts. For him, what's Good and what's Beautiful are intimately connected. “For me, substance has a shape. The Greeks call it kalokagathia, and here it means that flavor and beauty are inseparable. Whatever is good is by definition beautiful, and that which is beautiful can't not be good. The simple tasting of a fantastic elisir like coffee, for example, fills the senses with extremely pleasant stimuli that include taste, visual, and tactile sensations, along with the psychological and intellectual pleasure of being with others.”
Mr. Coffee's eyes light up when he talks about his experiences in the world of art, of good taste, of quality and beauty. He proudly holds a handsome artist-designed coffee cup in his hands as he sips a double espresso between one question and the next. “Our objective to make coffee as good as it is beautiful – tanto buono quanto bello. Starting with its dress, that is, the coffee cup, the experience is multi-sensory. The science of coffee helps improve the quality of the product in our search for excellence. Art serves to enhance this experience, introducing another route of perception, the visual.” So image matters? “Yes, certainly. Think, for example, about the care taken in presenting certain dishes or about the settings of certain restaurants. At Illy, we believe that luxury and experience are reciprocally dependent. In the sense that there is no luxury without a consumer experience, and where there's a consumer experience there's implicit luxury because we go beyond the satisfaction of primary needs, including the sphere of self-realization.”
And this is what the Illy experience offers? “Exactly. To consent a complete coffee experience, one that involves both the eye and the intellect, Illy chose art, literature and creativity as the language for expressing the company's values and philosophy. It began in 1992, with the first collection of cups designed by artists, in which the aesthetics of the cup harmonized with the coffee. Since that time, we have created an indivisible bond with the art world, above all thanks to my brother Francesco. He's the artist of the family, and always seeks out new opportunities for the meeting of what's good and what's beautiful.”
Illy weighs his words and studies his pauses as he speaks, as if inviting his interviewer to pursue with him this search for good taste and beauty. The cups, the blank canvas on which artists were urged to express themselves, led to a new logo from pop art guru, James Rosenquist. New designs for the containers followed, as did minimalist or neo pop design of espresso machines. “Art has begun to shape places for consumption,” he goes on. So the company opened “Espressamente illy”, a chain of coffee bars that attracted an international, sophisticated clientele, which then led to Galleria illy, temporary events in New York, Milan, Trieste, Istanbul, Berlin and London.” The last on the list was inaugurated on September 12, 2011, under the artistic direction of Michelangelo Pistoletto. “These are the perfect synthesis of our expressions in art and in the field of coffee culture. Today, though,” he points out, “we must, while searching for excellence, respect ethics and the environment. Doing business also means social commitment to better the quality of life our stakeholders.”
The concept of sustainability comes up many times during our conversation. Illy was the first company in the world to obtain recognition for its “Responsible Supply Chain Process”. Det Norske Veritas, or DNV, instituted a certification path open to companies in every sector to attest to the eco-sustainability of a firm all along its entire production line.
“The concept of quality is central to the philosophy of our business. I felt that way when I was a chemistry student and spent time in machine rooms or in company workshops to better understand the birth and transformation of our product. To pursue continuous improvement in quality, I went as far as Japan and took a course in Total Quality Management. We standardized every single tasting, that is, 140 quality checks that allowed us, over time, to perfect the blend recipe. It was almost an x-ray of the coffee.”
Japan, in particular, won over Illy's heart. “Above all, I travel for work. I don't have much free time. But Asia and its rituals always attract me, especially the Japanese tea ceremony. It embodies aesthetic, artistic and philosophical significance. Their food is light but sophisticated. It has few ingredients and simple, delicate cooking methods, able to enhance early vegetables. When I'm in Milan, I like to go to Zero or Nobu. I'm a fan of sashimi, tempura, shabu shabu, and all the beef-based dishes. I love soy, but not wasabi. Usually I just leave it there, on the plate.”
Michela Di Carlo