The espresso machine: it’s probably the most important piece of equipment in any café or coffee shop. But it has much more of a role to play than just making coffee, as sacrilegious as that may sound.
A prominent piece on every countertop, an espresso machine can help to brand a café, improve workflow, and create better coffee experiences. It goes without saying that a lot of thought and attention to detail has gone into their design, especially when it’s a high-quality machine. The inside components must do their job day in and day out. But it’s the exterior where the designers can really show off.
So, if you want to know how some of the world’s most renowned espresso machine makers go about designing these fabulous pieces of equipment, read on.
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Credit: La Marzocco
La Marzocco is one of the biggest names in the business. They’ve been designing and building espresso machines since 1927 and, with decades of experience, are known for exceptional machinery.
But the Florence-based company knows that appearances should not be overlooked, either. “Aesthetics play an important role and go hand-in-hand with the functional purpose,” says La Marzocco designer Stefano Della Pietra.
The team believe the main role of design is to facilitate the relationship between the barista – or whoever is looking at the machine – and the technology inside it. Design represents the entry point for understanding the equipment.
“When you envision a new machine, you have to begin structuring the design from a functionality point of view. The process is always starting from the inside to the outside,” Della Pietra explains.
He adds, “Design is very important as it resides in the brand statement and vice-versa. Meticulous attention is placed into every detail, from the choice of the material to the position of each component, the colour, and the shape and user-interface of the exterior.”
According to La Marzocco, their espresso machines represent tailor-made objects of beauty and utility, something that extends not to just to the aesthetic details but also to the service and user experience. “Each new design will be considered successful and well-conceived if it respects tradition and entices the barista to use the machine. It should also facilitate the production of the machine and make maintenance as easy as possible,” concludes Della Pietra.
Credit: La Marzocco
Another well-known Italian espresso machine maker is Sanremo. Based in Treviso, the company is an ambitious family-owned business with nearly 50 years of experience. They put a lot of emphasis on design; in fact, they describe their machines as “driven by design and innovation”.
So, does Sanremo design their machines from the inside out or the outside in? “There are cases in which we begin to design the exterior first and then move on to the internal components of the machine, and others where we instead adopt a reverse process,” says Sales and Marketing Manager Carlo de Sordi.
Moreover, the company believes that brand identity is fundamental. “This is why we try to emphasise it as much as possible, all over the world.”
They believe that customisation, while challenging, is always worth it. “Personalisation brings many difficulties, which is true for most beautiful things, but beautiful things are also the most interesting,” de Sordi says.
What’s more, he believes that the world of espresso machine design is changing. “We will have the high-end espresso machine with an increasingly sophisticated design, highly detailed and emotional too. This will be the winning weapon,” he says. “Then we will have the low-end espresso machine with a minimalist design, where the skill will be to combine design with very low production costs. As a result, the mid-range, not falling into these two categories, will be at risk.”
The three-group Sanremo Café Racer. Credit: Sanremo
One of the newer kids on the block is Seattle-based Slayer. Around a decade ago, their bold and high-tech machines entered the third wave market. The combination of striking designs and quality products soon drew attention.
As Lead Designer Chris Flechtner says, “My goal is to design products that are heirlooms, prized possessions that are not considered disposable… This requires design that’s not dated where integrity and authenticity of the chosen materials and finishes is respected.”
But why do they value design so highly?
“Whether in a home or in a café, the countertop area per square inch is prime real estate,” says Sarah Dooley, the company’s Customer Success Director. “It is here that we work from the serving side across the aisle to our guests and loved ones. Coffee service equipment should be mindful of workflow needs, streamlining and aiding in the production of hand-crafted, delicious beverages.”
Slayer believes the machine on top of the counter doesn’t have to be a cookie-cutter square box rumbling, hissing, and dripping out brown water. “We consider the barista a performer and the guest as the VIP box seat guest. An espresso machine should go that extra mile to set a beautiful stage, with intentional prop heights, dimensions, curves and ergonomics that only enhance the benefits of genuine communication while appealing to the senses. Why not make the entire show more memorable… even addictive?”
My next question was how Slayer begins designing a product. “We know more or less the basic dimensions we’re working within for an espresso machine,” says Jason Prefontaine, Slayer’s Founder and CEO. “So, in a way, we start from the inside. From there, we design the outside and then figure out how to put it all together and to make it all work.”
Customisation is another thing they consider: “Custom graphics, unique colours, and sometimes new approaches to machine modification all have to be closely managed so the machine comes together without issue and ships on time,” Flechtner says. “Depending on the complexity of the mod, it can be a logistical challenge managing many different vendors.”
Seattle-based Synesso claim to be born of the desire to bring the most temperature-stable commercial espresso machine to the market, and performance is their key concern.
“Aesthetics are always a part of our design process but our primary focus is always how well the machine is going to be able to perform and how reliable it will be,” says Sarah Palmer, Global Sales Manager. “We see great value in both design and performance.”
That doesn’t mean design is overlooked – when it came to planning the S200, Palmer tells me that they “started with design” – but they’re careful not to overvalue it. “We want to ensure our brand identity is communicated in the designs we develop, but at the end of the day, we want to make sure we’re meeting the market’s needs first and foremost,” Palmer stresses.
So, what does Synesso see as the future of espresso machine design? “I think people are starting to take more ownership in the customisation/design at the café level and ‘one-off’ machines will continue to grow. As a whole, I think espresso machine design will continue to move in the direction of bold statement pieces,” says Palmer.
Kees van der Westen
If you’ve ever seen a Mirage, Speedster, or Spirit, you were looking at a Kees van der Westen. This Netherlands-based company has been designing and building espresso machines since 1984. Van der Westen built his very first espresso machine that year as part of an industrial design study at school.
And for him, design plays a huge role. “In my opinion, the espresso machine needs to be a statue for one of the more important human cultures, the savouring of great coffee,” he tells me. “It must be recognisable as an espresso machine from a mile away, not to be confused with a microwave. A beacon around which friends gather to get that often much-needed kick to proceed in life in an optimistic way.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean design outranks performance – but it shouldn’t be neglected, either. “A good-looking machine lacking performance would be a complete fraud,” says van der Westen. “Espresso is a fast-paced type of coffee. The machine should highlight this both in functionality as well as in its body lines. The looks alone must convince it is ready to spit out thousands of cups, but the technical aspects must never disappoint those looks.”
So, how does van der Westen design and build a new machine? “At the very start of sketches, nothing is impossible,” he tells me. “The mind should be able to wander freely. Later on, costs need to be taken into account. After all, the machine does need to be sold to enable us to keep on working. The Netherlands is an expensive country to build machines, and our numbers are not high. All this amounts to high costs. Therefore the only way to still succeed is to warrant the high price with high-performing, very sturdily built, and seductive machines.”
Design, performance, and cost: van der Westen’s trinity of considerations.
As for the future, van der Westen is simultaneously optimistic and sad. He sees exciting developments in design in the upcoming years. “You already see minimalistic machines, like the under-counter models all the way to bold-looking espresso altars,” he says, “with customised boxes in-between. It sure is clear everybody finally realises proper design is also important with espresso machines.”
However, he’s also aware of the trend towards automation. “Currently everything points in the direction of more automation for the sake of perfect consistency. Grinders deliver the perfect amount and size of particles to machines that automatically infuse, extract and stop at precisely the right moment. Even steaming milk is automated slowly but surely. The natural end for this evolution would be the bean-to-cup super-automatic machines.
“On the one hand, I think it is a truly sad idea to phase out the human aspect, although some explain this is the perfect way for the barista to be a good host. On the other hand, I would gladly take up the challenge to design a striking fully automatic machine. There sure is significant work to do on those!”
Still, this is all in the future and, right now, van der Westen has plenty to keep him busy. “For now, we are quite happy to develop and design ever better looking and performing traditional machines,” he says.
The Kees van der Westen Spirit. Credit: Kees van der Westen
So, what have I learned from speaking to five industry leaders? That our gleaming espresso machines are masterful pieces of technology, but they’re far more than just engineering. The design helps to brand the coffee shop – and the manufacturer! – and improve the barista’s workflow. And while it shouldn’t be valued above the machine’s abilities and reliability, it should certainly be a consideration.
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