SoftBrew by Sowden


10 April 2014

“Two of the worst inventions of the 20th century are the tea bag and the coffee pod,” says George Sowden, British industrial designer and engineer.

Sowden goes on to explain how these two modern conveniences are wasteful, compromise the taste of the finished product and fail to embody the infusion process by which such drinks should be made. His distaste for these designs led him to research and invent the SoftBrew Coffee and Tea range of products, a culmination of his four-decade-long career in design and manufacturing.

Born in Leeds in 1942, Sowden originally trained as an architect. He moved to Milan in 1970 to work with Ettore Sottsass and Olivetti, subsequently becoming a founding member of the postmodern collective Memphis in 1981. His work, initially, was a reaction to the modernist fundamentalism that was the status quo in the early 1970s in Italy.

“I started doing decoration as a way out of modernism, because it was so frowned upon,” explains Sowden. “I made large tapestries, paintings and drawings, really for myself, to create my own references because there were no guidelines or navigation of how to break free, and we were in unknown territory, trying to do something different.”

Around the same time, there was an industrial shift from a mechanical culture to an electronic and digital one. While mechanical objects were functional and had an intrinsic aesthetic, electronic products were flexible and needed applied decoration. “We needed to understand the emotional value of the object because we were applying the aesthetic to it ourselves,” explains Sowden. “Decoration became the medium through which we communicated emotion.” It is this sensibility that has carried through Sowden’s work ever since and is manifested in his most recent project - the SoftBrew Coffee and Tea products - returning the quotidian activity of making these drinks to their origins.

“Working with manufacturers has always been an important part of my work,” emphasises Sowden. “Design and products happen in factories; they don’t happen on computer screens - when you’re making something you always have to collaborate.” When industry shifted from Europe to Asia, Sowden became a self-professed "tourist of factories," travelling to China to find suppliers or organise production for different clients.

It was on one of these trips that he decided to make his own line of products as a self-initiated project. “I decided deliberately to work on tea and coffee because they are two wonderful and poetic subjects,” he explains. “The whole world is involved in tea and coffee from producing them to drinking them so they are two extraordinary topics to build an idea around.”

In his initial research of what existed on the market by way of coffee pots, he discovered the process of infusing coffee into water had become so standardised, compressed, capsuled and overcomplicated that the taste and texture were heavily compromised. Even the omnipresent paper filter traps oils as well as grinds, thereby altering the taste. Speaking to coffee tasters, Sowden found that they use a "cupping" method, whereby ground coffee is covered in hot water in a bowl and a special spoon is then used to separate the beans from the liquid while drinking. The simplicity of this process creates purity of taste, yet the problem of separating out the fine coffee grinds means that it had not caught on.

Around this time, Sowden discovered a factory that specialised in micro engineering, making 1mm diameter cogs for toy helicopters. The resolution and precision of these minute objects made him see the potential in collaborating with them to create a new coffee filter. Made by laser etching stainless steel, the filter that Sowden designed has over 150,000 holes, each only 150 microns in diameter.

The precision required to cut these holes on two sides and perfectly align them is immense, which makes it expensive. Yet Sowden says that he is fascinated by the manufacturing process and observing how a factory adapts to produce a new product. “What is nice about Chinese factories is that they build their own machines,” says Sowden. “They think about the problem and then build a machine to solve it.”

Made from porcelain and bone china from Chaozhou with a hollow handle to insulate against the heat, the SoftBrew Coffee Pot’s form is a contemporary take on a traditional object. The filter is twice as efficient as that of a standard coffee machine, and can capture fine coffee grounds, which can be around 200 microns in diameter.

The filter is is sized to the vertical pot, stretching down to increase the surface area through which beans can percolate and infuse into the liquid. The flexibility of the filter is intended to suit personal tastes – it can take either fine or coarsely ground coffee, an important variable in determining the final taste. The coffee the pot produces is smooth and rich, with none of the wateriness usually associated with filter coffee nor the dusty veneer of escaped coffee grounds.

Sowden's success with the coffee pot led him to also revisit and design a tea equivalent. It uses the same filtration technology as the coffee pot, albeit with larger holes sized to filter tea leaves. Both objects embody what Sowden refers to as "post-crisis values", the desire to create something timeless that is both pragmatic and poetic. The emotional value of objects and their associated rituals have been present in his work since Memphis.

“At that time we had to start inventing our own languages, through which we each created our own world,” explains Sowden. “We now live in a world where anything goes and by giving values to objects we decide if they are relevant or not - the irrelevant things just tend to disappear.”