Kees van der Westen
Visitors to the MADISON shop in Bucharest may well have spotted the warmly glowing front panel of a compact, red-striped Faema E61 espresso machine that long treated clients to delicious shots of espresso. While that retro machine is now happily retired to a beach house on the Black Sea, its replacement could not have been better: a Spirit, an illustrious espresso-making workhorse, handcrafted in the Netherlands by Kees van der Westen.
The Van der Westen name, already familiar to the most ardent coffee aficionados, has many connotations, though high performance and high precision are what usually come to mind first. Besides the top-notch engineering that goes into each and every one of them, these machine are infused with a flamboyant style and an aerodynamic flair more commonly associated with sports cars. They are sensuous but speedy, refined though always revving and raring to go.
As of June 2016, MADISON became an official distributor of Kees van der Westen for Romania, and the two-group Spirit at the Bucharest shop has brought something of a spiritual awakening to clients and staff, alike. That Van der Westen himself is a collector of vintage machines by Faema, the Italian company famous for its pivotal post-war contribution of the E61 to the market, makes the upgrade at MADISON’s coffee corner all the warmer. Although born and raised a Dutchman, Van der Westen has devoted his career – four decades and counting – to perfecting the most iconically Italian product for what is one of the most universally consumed liquids on earth.
Sometimes Van der Westen can be spotted outside the Netherlands, serving as a keynote speaker at a coffee festival somewhere in the world. Sometimes he can be found a short drive from home, taking a closer look at how his equipment is holding up at a bustling bar in Amsterdam. But most days of the week Van der Westen is at his corporate headquarters, a conjoined workshop and warehouse tucked away in a quiet industrial area in the Dutch village of Waalre.
Officially known as Kees van der Westen Espressonistic Works, the business is run with the professionalism and efficiency that an international corporation purveying exclusive, expensive wares would demand. Machines are built on custom-made carts that proudly bear the company’s punchy pop-art lever logo. Each technician has a workstation, conducive to meditative-like concentration on the job at hand. Each machine gets an identification number, marking the series to which it belongs and when it was made, so any questions or comments, both always welcome, can be fielded for years.
By keeping the company small, the atmosphere stays intimate and the workflow, smooth. The backgrounds of the staff are myriad, and their spectrum of expertise allows the company to attend to clients’ diverse needs in diverse settings. But still, there is time and space, physically and mentally speaking, for the research and development team to experiment and, simply put, have fun. This is something their boss realizes is not only soothing for the soul, but also a stimulus for creativity and innovation. He knows from experience.
By the time Van der Westen had finished school in 1985, he himself was coloring outside the lines, not just by producing what were quite dazzling designs for the times, but in staying devoted to a device associated with a drink that his compatriots were not consuming en masse. In short, the demand for a new and improved espresso machine in the Lowlands was slim to none. Van der Westen had studied industrial design at the Stedelijk Hoger Instituut voor Industriële Vormgeving in Flanders. Coffee was not something he had any special investment in – it was functional, helping him stay up when doing an assignment late into the night.
To meet academic requirements, he needed to work on an object that was produced on an industrial scale. And so he selected the espresso machine. The first he built was problematic, to say the least. It had exploded, literally, and in many ways figuratively, causing enough frustration for the student to relegate it to the status of dummy. But by the second project, the restoration of a one-group espresso machine, things were going more smoothly. It functioned as intended. A discotheque in Louvain later bought it, presumably more as a conversation piece than a source of caffeine since dance clubs were inclined to serve beverages with the opposite effect.
After graduating, Van der Westen held various jobs. Some involved design – for example, the interior of a hair salon, its walls, mirrors, drawers and all – while others, like driving a truck, were less artistically challenging though still rich in life lessons. Yet, every so often, the espresso machine would beckon Van der Westen, and he would answer its call. Before long, he began getting commissioned to build one-offs. From start to finish, the process was tedious. First the machine had to be drawn, a practice Van der Westen did – and to this day, still does – with a paper and pencil, thus capturing the one-to-one dimensions of an invention’s actual size, rather than turning directly to a digital screen. Then the frame had to be constructed, from scratch and all by hand, using a grind, a welding torch and a hammer. For this work, he would occupy a shed behind his parents’ home, each morning having to empty it of parked bicycles and each evening dutifully returning them. The small apartment he shared with his girlfriend came to show the unequivocal evidence that these machines were spray-painted, thoroughly. Finishing one machine in two months was considered fast. Moreover, with the completion of each came the arresting thought that if he could do it all over again, it would even be better, a step closer to perfect.
The 1990s had brought Van der Westen into contact with La Marzocco, the Florence-founded company that for years had served as the exclusive supplier of espresso machines to Starbucks and whose Linea models appear today in specialty cafes worldwide. Eventually, Van der Westen became a distributor for La Marzocco in the Netherlands, as well as a regional repairman for the company. That work might not have fulfilled his need to create, but it did open doors for Van der Westen, who finally gained access to components necessary to build his own machine in a small series. Borne from his work with La Marzocco was the game-changing device known as the Mistral. It was Van der Westen’s first production machine, successfully manufactured for years in a series and later fully taken over by La Marzocco. In 2001, Van der Westen had begun experimenting with a machine he called the Mirage and, with its incorporation of numerous technical updates, it became a success. It is the one in a trio of machines still manufactured by the company, the others being the Speedster, which first appeared in 2001, and the Spirit, which debuted in 2012. Today all three models are distributed by MADISON.
By 2007, the same year that MADISON absolute beauty was founded, Kees van der Westen Espressonistic Works had moved into its current headquarters, lying about 10 kilometers from the train station in Eindhoven, the Netherlands’ fourth-largest city, the historical headquarters of tech giant Philips and host to the prestigious Design Academy Eindhoven.
With an annual output of some hundreds of pieces, Van der Westen machines are like rare birds. They tend to be spotted in certain habitats, such as high-volume espresso bars and specialty coffee shops, and are inclined to cluster in some geographies more than others. Unsurprisingly, the Netherlands has its fair share. The United States worships the machines – from Hollywood blockbusters to indie Netflix shows, they regularly make cameos on the silver screen – perhaps in part because they are seen as exotic specimens flown in from across the sea. The largest market, however, remains Australasia, where some consider new wave coffee to have first peaked and, in the minds and mouths of some, to have self-perfected.
Building espresso machines in the Netherlands is arguably a costlier pursuit than in Italy, where parts are more easily sourced and the industry is bolstered by a nationally acclaimed legacy. Van der Westen has said this is one reason he endeavors to provide a product that is not only stronger and faster than most others, but also better-looking. Yet, those who get to know the man and his brand realize that any allegedly added cosmetic value is the unerring result of an instinctively gifted designer. An aesthete as much as an engineer, Van der Westen could not deliver something boring, let alone unattractive.
Some of his earliest inspiration is drawn from the Memphis Group, a collective of designers and architects who during the 1980s in Milan imbued objects and spaces with colorful, sometimes clashing, shapes and patterns. This led to the blossoming of a postmodern style that deviated from the neutral tones and and sober lines coming to dominate industrial design in Italy and elsewhere. These days, when asked what inspires him, Van der Westen is likelier to focus on physics than reference prior cultural movements. “Espresso machines should look speedy; espresso is, after all, a fast coffee,” he has stated, citing the influence of cars, boats and airplanes. But, a down-to-earth pragmatist at heart, he has said that looking at a plant can inspire him, too. Regardless, after three decades in this business, Van der Westen has undoubtedly developed his own vision and distinct manner of execution. Others now are referencing him.
The silhouette of his espresso machine is strong, eye-catching from afar, mesmerizing nearby. But that recognizable frame is one that can evolve and be embellished, both as an individual model that gets fine-tuned and as a whole collection whose technical and functional needs evolve with the rest of the industry. The result is a totally reliable, high-capacity apparatus that stays attractive throughout time. To borrow a metaphor from the inventor himself, a Van der Westen machine is as powerful as a Land Rover but performs – and looks more like – a Ferrari.
Van der Westen’s engineering and craftsmanship remain as painstakingly detailed as they were decades ago when the recent grad tinkered with one-offs in his parents’ shed. Today he has a league of professionals to help realize his ideas and generate new ones with greater speed and wider reach. In addition, he has an entire legion of coffee lovers and learners watching his and his machines’ every move.
It is an honor for MADISON to introduce Kees van der Westen espresso machines to Romania and to distribute the Mirage, the Speedster and the Spirit. In keeping with Madison’s aspirations for its own clients, they are modern yet age-defying, powerful yet absolutely beautiful.