Coffee Culture

Interview with Carlo Bach, Artistic Director of Illycafè

Dasha Zaichanka for illycaffé

Foto: © illycaffè

illy began its quest to create beauty in 1999–not with a white canvas but with a blank espresso cup designed by Matteo Thun. It became an instant success among baristas and coffee-drinkers alike.


Today it features designs by more than 70 leading contemporary artists. The result is the iconic illy coffee cup.  In 2006, the project was expanded to illy’s signature, silver, 250-gram coffee cans.


illy has made art an active part of the company’s image. Today, the company is known for its strong commitment to multiple facets of the art community, and has a presence at top art events – including the Present Future Prize, presented during the Artissima art fair in Turin, and an ongoing project with photographer Sebastião Salgado.

Few global brands have created such a hands-on impact in the art and design world.

Interview: Carlo Bach, Artistic Director, illycaffè


EAS: Why did illycaffè start an art initiative?


Carlo Bach: The Illy family members have always had a passion for art and culture and the family-owned coffee purveyor, based in Trieste, Italy wanted to reflect this in their business. After all, coffee itself has an important and natural connection to art and culture and has long been connected to the artist’s creative process - for example in the Coffee House Tradition. The café is a meeting point for art: historically artists, writers and musicians met regularly in Paris, Vienna, Trieste and Venice to discuss cultural revolutions and creative developments.


I was actually one of the young artists the Illy family was collecting when and I had a nice relationship with the family, so they asked me: “Why don’t you try to develop a program for young artists for us, as you yourself are a young artist?” So I started, thinking it would only be for a couple of years; but now I have developed the program for over 20 years


Yoko Ono for illycaffè, Foto: © illycaffè



EAS: What were the first steps?


CB: It started with the white porcelain illy cup designed by Mattheo Thun in 1992. The idea was to invite great contemporary artists to create signed, original designs on the cups to elevate the simple pleasure of drinking an espresso into an experience that fully engages all the senses and the mind. ᅠWhen the project first started, the collection was just for the ILLY bars. But after the introduction, we realized the cups were being stolen by the public! So the marketing department concluded that if they are being stolen, then they are coveted and they can be sold! Now you can buy those cups in coffee bars, or the online illy Art Collection site.


The relationships ᅠbetween ᅠillyᅠ andᅠ the contributingᅠ artists ᅠhave grown and strengthened over time, extending to other media and locales, such as museums, exhibitions, the Venice Biennale, books and events.

When I see that an artist is
happy and the company is proud,

it’s very satisfying.


For example illy in 2013 created the Present Future Prize presented during the Artissima art fair in Turin. The prize gives the opportunity to a young artist to show his or her work in the Castello di Rivoli museum outside Turin. Over the years, the illy Present Future Prize has proved to be an exceptional source of talent, confirmed by the successful and respected international careers of former participants including Luca Francesconi, Padraig Timoney, Michael Beutler, Santo Tolone and Fatma Bucak.


EAS: Do you know what your customers do with their cup collection? Do they drink their coffee in them or do they keep as an art piece?


CB: I hope they use them! For sure, there is a group of people who collect the cups, but I think most of the people buy two or three collections in their lives and use them for pure pleasure, to have a coffee in them.

And from our side, we create one new collection every year for the bars. So the new cups are enjoyed by customers in illy bars throughout the world.


Sebastião Salgado for illycaffè; Foto: © illycaffè


EAS: How is the illy art initiative reflected in the company’s brand?


CB: Well, it’s part of everything you see coming from the company. I created the art project when I started to work for illy in ’99. But today, as Creative Director,  I am also involved in the design of the machines, the architecture of our bars, the advertising -  everything that is an expression of the brand is checked by me to see if the brand personality is respected and the brand values are communicated. So I am more or less involved in everything. Sometimes, fifty percent. Sometimes sixty percent. And one hundred percent in the art project. It’s a very different job than it originally was, venturing into different areas of art and design.


EAS: How do you choose the art projects? How do you choose the artists?


CB: I visit art fairs and exhibitions regularly and I keep up the personal connections to the artists I know. Through the years, I’m often introduced by one artist to another, who will go on to create the next illy cup for example.


We more or less have three ways to select the artists we collaborate with. We take a 360° view of what’s going on in the art world and what the great artists of our time are working on.


Sometimes we support a big show that an artist is preparing.ᅠFor example, Daniel Buren’s show in Paris in 2012. He called me and said “I have a big exhibitionᅠin the Grand Palais, for Monumenta. I have the idea to put an ᅠilly bar in the middle of the installation. So why don’t we work together for this special project that connects illyᅠto the exhibition?”


Sometimes illy creates a project and I ask an artist to collaborate, and sometimes we work on someᅠgreat opportunities that the artists propose to us. For me this is the most satisfying and exciting part of my work. To be able to spend a day with Michelangelo Pistoletto or have a creative dialog with James Rosenquist. I think about some of the relationships I’ve been able to build—Marina Abramovic, who is an incredible person and an amazing artist. I went to Louise Bourgeois’s home to work with her on her designs for the illy cup collection. These are the high points of my job.


The third way to select artists isᅠthrough illy sustainArt, which we founded in 2007 as an online platform  where we try to develop projects with artists coming from coffee-producing countries and emerging markets such as Colombia, India and Ethiopia. We create special juries and contests in collaboration with foundations and art fairs to discover and choose the best artists in these regions.


Selecting young artists in general is a more complex process, because there are so many promising ones.


Federico Fellini for illycaffè 1993; Foto: © illycaffè


EAS: Which program in the art initiative was the most successful and what are you most proud of?


CB: Oh, it is very difficult. I have been managing this project since 1999, so to mention just one is very difficult. It always seems to be the project I am currently working on. At the moment, it’s the cup being designed in collaboration with Yoko Ono.


But aside from this, I consider the Venice Biennale to be the most important contemporary art event in the world  - an important moment when the world can see what developments are taking place in contemporary art.  That is why we started a partnership. We have been the official coffee of the Venice Biennale last dozen years and illy tries to create a new experience at the Biennale each time - to find a new way to relate and contribute to culture. In 2011 we exhibited a new and special art piece by Anish Kapoor in an incredible show at Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore. We’ve worked with Tobias Rehberger on the Café in the Italian Pavilion of the Biennale and the illy Push Button House was designed by Adam Kalkin in 2007.


EAS: What advice do you have for another corporate executive engaging in art?


CB: There must be a balance between company interests and the interests of the artist – with the goals of the artist getting a bit more weight in that balance.



There’s nothing better than sharing

what you love with others.



EAS: Do you feel it is important that companies and corporations engage in an art program?


CB: Yes, it is very important because it make art accessible to the public on many different levels and it supports young artists. The company reinvests money into the art world, sponsoring shows and scholarships. It’s a very nice circle.


For example the illy sustain Artᅠproject is one of the greatest pleasures of my job. There are several components. We show art pieces coming from emerging countries on the website We award an illy prize of 10,000-15,000 Euros at the biggest art shows in Europe. A Brazilian artist who recently won said to me, “With this, I can live for a year.” The fact that we can give an artist the ability to survive another year and make his artwork is a source of great pride.


Living in all these initiatives is the entrepreneurial spirit that is characterizesᅠilly’s culture: seek out the new and the beautiful, and find ways for the world experience it.


Interview: Ellen-Andrea Seehusen

Text: Shellie Karabell, Ellen-Andrea Seehusen, Julian Stalter

Photos: illycaffé