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Nose first into coffee

It is one of the first really warm spring afternoons in Oslo. I meet Kristin Hærnes Ihlen walking out the door at Tim Wendelboe, quickly grabbing one of the benches lining the shopfront. Back inside, behind the counter, sits a stack of coffee cups by her design.

Kristin is an industrial designer. In collaboration with the porcelain manufacturer Figgjo and the infamous barista and roaster Tim Wendelboe, she has designed three coffee cups and a mug catering to coffee and design connoisseurs alike. The series is made for serving black filter coffee, and it is designed to enhance the flavours of the coffee beans, not hiding the beans’ unique flavour with the addition of milk. The series is called Figgjo Oslo. And at Tim Wendelboe, they serve their aeropress coffee in her design.

The white ceramic cups are specially designed to intensify aroma and taste notes. Much like we have grown to know how wine glasses can play an important role in the tasting (and enjoyment) of wine, so is the purpose of these cups.

First off, Kristin shows me the beautifully designed coffee mug. The mug is made so that baristas can brew coffee straight into it; and it is tailor-made for serving both aeropress and V60. Instead of serving 2 dl of black coffee straight into one cup, the idea is to keep most of the brew left in the mug. The taste of coffee changes at various temperatures, and the mug keeps the coffee warm, allowing guests to pour the coffee themselves to experience the coffee on their own terms.

The coffee shop menu offers an exciting tasting option consisting of four different coffees. This is an excellent way of trying out (some of) the world famous roasted coffees at Tim Wendelboe, so naturally we order a tasting to share.

While waiting for our coffee, I ask Kristin to take us back to the beginning.

– The idea of making these cups started with my master thesis at NTNU (the Norwegian University of Science and Technology). At first, all I knew was that I wanted to design something I was curious and passionate about. And, well, you can say my interest in coffee was a bit higher than average, she laughs.

– I also wanted to create design with a purpose and that wish resulted in this coffee series. I like the participation of both experts and consumers in the process. This gives the coffee drinkers a whole other experience. A better one, I believe.

– It was important for me to cooperate with a Norwegian producer. First and foremost, because I wished to be close to production, making these cups physically to really see how they worked out, and secondly, because I wanted to support Norwegian producers. Figgjo helped me with the whole process of producing cups. And there have been loads of cups leading up to the end result.

Kristin smiles, before agreeing that it’s pretty cool to sit here at one of Norway’s best coffee shops and sip black gold from her own design.

As we squint towards the sun, the barista comes out with a tray of coffee. She enthusiastically presents the first two roasts that we are going to taste; a fruity Kenyan, and a full-bodied one from Honduras. The coffees are poured into “Kristin’s cups”.

The first cup we sip, the so-called split cup, is designed to give you a broad mouthfeel and to centre the aroma, as the smell goes straight into your nose.

I consciously smell the coffee and even roll my glass as I lift it up towards my nose. And I must admit, it’s the first time I do this while drinking coffee.

The second cup we try is a so-called “open” cup. Here, the design aims to air the coffee; releasing the aroma for a subtle and delicate taste.

I feel lucky to sit here speaking to the designer who intimately knows every little detail of these cups, telling me how to best use them. I am enjoying being a part of this experience in which I am learning so many new things about coffee.

To Kristin, quality is of great importance, but what tastes good to her might not taste good to me, we are allowed to have different preferences, she explains.

– Although I have become a coffee nerd, I don’t like the top-down approach that you can see in some experienced baristas or coffee makers. I think that the amazing coffee we get served in Norway should be approachable, but still valued.

– However, the baristas and coffee roasters I met when doing my research really inspired me. They are so passionate and dedicated, and when you dive into that world you do discover the delightfulness of a good cup of coffee.

Although a real coffee nerd, Kristin admits she did not drink a lot of coffee when investing hours upon hours at her university’s study hall. Hunched over her books, she would choose to drink tea, and rather brew one or two quality coffees in the morning when time allowed her to.

The barista comes out with our second tray of coffee, once again she presents the coffees to us and listening to her describe the flavour palates, only stimulates our curiosity further. The first coffee is from Ethiopia and it’s the lightest roast they serve. It is filled with flowers, honey and lemon and can almost be compared to a cup of tea. The second one is from Honduras; it’s a full-bodied coffee, with hints of cherry, chocolate and a plum finish.

The Ethiopian coffee is served in a “tulip” cup. Its purpose is to give a more intense and, for some coffees, a sweeter taste. We drink in silence for a while as we hold on to our cups. Not only to properly taste the coffee, but because the cups feel comfortable resting in our hands. It’s a nice moment, simply holding on, slowly sipping the best coffee in town.

– Making physical products is what I want to do. I think something exciting happens when people meet physical products. When you can hold it, feel it and touch it. Such meetings can become exiting experiences. Hence our start up company Physical; founded by four fellow students and myself back in January 2014.

Kristin praises the competence of her former colleagues. Physical was her baby, but it could be tough financially and she ended up working part time at restaurant in order to pay the bills. But how she loved it! The only thing missing was the opportunity to really immerse herself in her projects. As a consultant you are mostly part of projects working on a strict deadline. This is why, after two incredible years, she decided to move on. Kristin now works as a packaging developer at Diplom Is – a Norwegian ice cream company with a long and proud history. And Diplom Is surely meant business hiring Kristin; this was the first time such a position was announced. As with the coffee cups, she is now utilising her talent to develop physical product design that seeks to enhance flavour.

– I have regained my spare time. When working at Physical, I was working around the clock, as you do when you have a start up. One thing I can do more often now, is climb. Outdoors and indoors. That is how I let my steam out.

The fourth coffee is coming to an end. I ask her to describe herself as a designer.

 

– Curious, passionate, professional and positive. And naive. Probably. I like people; I believe in people and I design for people. I do not design for the sake of design. I like to make something that someone actually wants or needs. Of course aesthetics are important to me as a designer, but it is not what I start with. I start with a want or a need.

After talking to Kristin for more than an hour, and enjoying some excellent coffee, I feel like I should add one more description of the woman I’ve just met, and that is educated. It is evident that Kristin has done her thorough research; she knows so much about coffee – its history, its geography and its processes. She comes across as someone who genuinely enjoys immersing herself into her subjects. As I have gotten a taste of her master thesis, a peek into the process behind it, I can say one thing: it looks like hard work. Fun and tasty, but still hard work.