Interview with Versalab Inventor
John Bicht


 

John Bicht is the inventor and designer of all Versalab-made products. Just in case you are not familiar with the company, Versalab introduced a series of critically acclaimed espresso products under the M3 series. The M3 line includes an espresso machine, a grinder, and a packer. I led the M3 grinder review in The Bench forum.

The idea to interview John came after I called Versalab to report a problem with my recently purchased M3 grinder. As he helped me through the diagnosis and correction, we started chatting. What intrigued me was not so much their grinder or espresso machine, but the range of industries for which he has designed products. Over his career, his areas of interest have spanned from race cars, to hi-fi audio, to photography, to commuter car emergency doors - to name just a few. His products are often revolutionary and fall under the category of Extreme Design. Clean Slate designs are the hallmark of original thinkers and perfectionists. Such designs are often risky from a business perspective, and it takes a special kind of individual to put it all on the line and see it through.

So, this interview is more about product design and the creative process than about a particular product. Don't worry though, we are still going to cover Versalab's M3 espresso line of products. —AC

 

Let's start with a little personal background. How old are you and where did you grow up?

I am 61, and I grew up to the age of seven in a little town in Maryland called Hagerstown. My father worked as a draftsman for Fairchild Aircraft, an airplane manufacturer, and my mother was an artist and art teacher. A draftsman is the person who creates the manufacturing drawings of things - in this case airplanes.

What effect if any has your parents' vocation had on you?

Throughout my life, I was always drawn to those two seemingly contradicting polls: science and the arts. They are not always in contradiction. In product design they are complementary. But these two are at the heart of my design.

Back to my childhood. When in elementary school, I learned to use my father's slide rule. Later I read a book my father had that was the first rocket design text book. By junior high school I designed an 80 lbs thrust rocket system. It used nitric acid and aniline as its fuel. It was all on paper of course, but that was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with designing things.

Were you a good student?

I was, at the beginning. But somewhere around junior high I stopped doing well in school. It was a social issue, I just did not get along well with my classmates, and it greatly affected me. Consequently, I failed to get to a Polytechnic High School for advance sciences. I saw myself on a path to MIT, but realized that I failed. Without a strong academic background, I had no chance for admission.

I proceeded to a regular high school, at which I did as poorly as junior high. I loved learning, but got bored with the curriculum very quickly. My dismal performance in high school made it very difficult to be accepted to any science college. I was finally admitted to one, and was quietly hopeful.

College was a social shock. I grew up as a delicate child in a very protective environment, and again, I've always been slow to adjust to a changing social environment. That stint did not last long, and as in high school, I was unable to perform academically. I felt quite alienated from the other students - quite on my own. I was thrown out of science, again, for poor academic performance, and enrolled in art school. I did quite well there, but I was still more drawn to life outside school and spent less time at homework than I should have. Philadelphia is a bustling metropolis and had a strong pull on me. As you would expect by now, I was kicked out of that college too.

When did you start with car racing?

Right about that time, 1964-1965. I was 20, and I would race my mother's Hillman station-wagon on backroads. My father bought a Jaguar XK 140 in 1957, which I also drove occasionally. I had been intrigued with racing since the age of 12 or 13. I read all the magazines.

Thrown out of college and on my ass again for the nth time, I started working first as a motorcycle and later car mechanic. After a couple years I met a wealthy lawyer who was opening a race car workshop in Philly. I worked for him for a few years and later a European car dealership. Within a couple more years I was one of the better exotic car mechanics in Philly - working on Ferrari, Maseratis, and Lancias - and other odds and ends. By this time I was already on my third race car - I was only really interested in Formula cars (single seaters with exposed wheels).

England was the center of car road racing in the mid 60's to the Late 70's and my goal was to move to England to further a career racing cars. I was well into performance improvements, being friendly with various experienced racing people, including some from the (then) nearby Penske Racing enterprise.

It was 1972, I was married, and I was raring to get on with a career driving. We landed in London with four suitcases and $6,000. After 2-1/2 months of unemployment, I finally found a job as a welder at a race car manufacturer. I worked and raced, and continuously enhanced my knowledge because I was the main test driver for the company. I drove the car two to three times a week - each time with new experiments. The learning was enormous and quite unique to my situation - which was dreadful financially, but full of experience.

I was very adept to understanding the car as a whole, from the brakes, to the geometry of the suspension, to the shocks and springs, each little component spoke to me (at least I remember it so). Those years honed and solidified my skills as a designer. They color everything I did in design from that moment on. An oddity was that any really great race car also looked like a great race car. Performance came with the looks.

How did you then move to mainstream product design?

I had a falling out with my race car manufacturer boss in 1974. I wanted a better motor, but he couldn't get me one in the time frame that I wished. I would not budge in my demands and he could do nothing but let me leave in a huff. Stupid boy that I was, I was out of racing temporarily (I only got in one more season in 1976), and I had to look for another job.

A job opened at Ogle Design for a draftsman. My art school background, my dad's vocation, my experience as a mechanic, and my science background all came to play here; despite my lack of formal schooling I got the job. My first project was to draft aspects of a clay model which was later to become the body of an electric taxi. Throughout the project I would ask my boss about who was designing various parts of the car (that I hadn't seen the drawings of) and he would each time realize that he had not thought to have someone design them. He would ask me if I could do it - I would answer yes (having no idea how to do it yet) - and I would go ahead and do it. It took a lot of homework time and hard thinking to pull this off. These various parts were basically the whole mechanics of the vehicle. It amounted to 12 patent applications by Lucas the client, covering chassis, body and interior construction.

Ogle was the greatest place I've ever worked in. I was the lone mechanical designer amongst a great group of talented fun loving visual designers. I loved the people, the challenge and my work. I designed electric vehicles, crash protection structures, truck cabs, train emergency door, and many odd things in my four+ years there.

Let's pause here for a moment and talk about the creative process. How do you approach design? Do you study everything done before and try to improve on it? Is it methodical thinking or intuitive?

It can be a frustrating and aggravating process through most of it. In the first stage I gather the information. I do study old designs, but mostly in order to identify their weak spots. The question I ask is "what's wrong with that design and why is it imperfect?"

But my very first question is what is the need? What are the defining goals of the new product (or machine). That is, what should the machine or design do? I then proceed to figure out how to build that machine. That is, how it should do what it needs to do.

At that stage, I almost never use an existing design and try to improve it. I start fresh, from a virtually clean slate and ask myself, "Where do I start?" As I go through the process, I set priorities to each element. How important is it to have it and its role in the end product. Since any product or machine design is a compromise, I need to understand what the priorities of the functional design are. The earliest compromises are within the details of the working relationships of the various functional parts.

So far the process is methodical and rigorous. Essentially creating a list of the problems and the priorities that define their relationship. I find this to be kind of fun sometimes. When it comes time to turn these into real world stuff is when make-believe has to end. Now comes the hard part of trying to turn notions into hardware. This is exhausting.

After the research/mental list process, I need to shift my way of thinking. I need very much to loosen up. My brain has all the main information necessary; it now needs to let the solutions flow. A shift left brain to right brain - except the details of the design require the left brain to continue to participate. It is a trying time. When the solutions pop out then I am really stoked—what a great time!

Once the thing is pretty well fleshed out the rest can be fun. Then it becomes the relationship of cost to make, and visuals, and how they relate to the functional realities.

My lack of success as a businessman is partly because I'm so caught up in my design process. If I hadn't been so stubborn and tendentious to minimize compromises, I would be much better off today. For example, instead of designing the ultimate espresso machine, I should have modernized the Marzocco GS a few years ago.

What drives you to create products in the first place? Is it an outlet for a creative force?

When I was 15, there was a Ferrari I really wanted. I did not have the money to buy it, so I came up with ideas for five products. I hoped to sell these ideas to get the money to buy the car!! So, to answer your question, I do need to create just for the fun of it, but truly, almost all my creations were out of necessity. I needed the money. In places like Ogle Design and Jade Corp where I was an employee, then there was no necessity, just my job. Of course, a job is just another kind of necessity. But when I started working for myself, that was the impetus.

How has the lack of formal education affected you?

It has affected me greatly in every one of my designs. Because I didn't get a Masters in engineering or something like that, I am afraid that I will overlook something that someone else will spot. So I cover any possible angle in the design to make sure that I have not missed anything or screwed up anything. What passes as arrogance sometimes is actually rooted in this insecurity. It may have made me more thorough than I otherwise would have been, and as a by-product, a better designer, but I am paying a heavy toll for it, personally. It is a difficult process.

All your designs, from industrial machines to audio equipment to the M3 line of espresso products share similar esthetics. It reminds me of Scandinavian and Japanese designs where clean lines and minimalism reigns. When I first saw your Versa Dynamics record player, I thought it was designed by Bang & Olufsen, or perhaps by Sid Mead who designed all the instruments that appear in the futuristic classic Blade Runner. Where is this visual style coming from?

My esthetics in design is a visual representation of how I see myself as a person. I do not have a name for it, but its three components are what I can loosely characterize as formality, rigor and structure. I believe in the sheer value of hard work and high professional standards. This is where the rigor comes from. I am also a formal person in my interaction with the world in general. I am an introvert, and slow to open up and this may explain some of it. Structure relates to my upbringing and my methodical thinking. It is the scientist part of me. Being an artist, I intuitively gave those three characteristics a visual representation.

This of course is not a conscious construct, but my attempt in hindsight to explain why I like what I like.

Could you give me an example from the arts to clarify that point?

If you want a comparison from the arts, look at the self-portrait by an older Rembrandt. I am not comparing myself to that great master, but rather use his art to illustrate a point. His portraits share those characteristics of formality, rigor and structure. If you put the Versalab M3 espresso machine or grinder next to a Rembrandt, and let the visuals alone affect you, you will see that common thread. Picture the M3 grinder next to that self-portrait and try to feel the underlying structure, you may get what I mean. Many notable artists display this in their work - Degas, Rodin, Alice Neel.

What was the impetus to start your own companies? Was it the projects that interested you?

I think it was the independence at the beginning, but later it became a necessity. My skill as a product designer drove me to unemployment. In the past 30 years or so, design professionals have become commodities, and as such, they are predefined. A company that hires designers will hire one that specializes in A, another in B, etc. They will put all of them together as building blocks of their design team. One needs to fit into that narrow mold in order to work well in that environment. This is not a place for very high quality. It takes a certain kind of person to fit there and it isn't me. When I walk into those environments they look at me and recognize that I am not one of them. Looking at my wide background, I do not fit in any of those molds, so I must work for myself. We are going back to necessity.

What is important to you about a product you design, beyond the financial?

I think that products that I design are required by me to do two things. Number one is perform better than any product available, and usually better for a very long time. The record players are still the best in the world against players that now cost upwards of $65,000. The extra performance that we put into everything - so that we know they are better - is usually unnoticed by the marketplace, or only a small percentage of people, those with equally high standards.

Number two I want our customers to like the products for a very long time on an emotional basis. The products should be a delight to use and own.

How did you get into espresso?

We lived in Manhattan for many years, and there was a coffee shop in Little Italy we visited frequently. We loved their espresso. After we moved to Colorado, we just couldn't find good coffee where we lived, and I decided to get an espresso machine. I started with a low-end home machine, which I threw out shortly thereafter, and moved to a Silvia. I bought green beans from Sweet Maria's and an Alpen roaster and started roasting and making my own espresso. Silvia was a step up, but nowhere near the quality we were accustomed to.

As I was looking for a better solution, I ran across Schomer's website and read about his difficulties in controlling brew temperature on his machines and his frustration with grinders. It was early 2001. After much emailing, I went to Seattle in February to help him incorporate a PID controller into a Linea. Originally it was supposed to happen in his shop, but he changed this to the ESI lab. At the time I wanted to address the grinder issues, but since I knew nothing of espresso and coffee shops, I needed some of his knowledge, so I helped him and he helped me.

Between David and ESI they had some limitations in understanding the details of this temperature control implementation. It was, after all, me who said I could get the thing working and that was why I was there - by the next morning I had it working nicely and really pleasing Schomer.

Various expectations on my part caused David and I to fall out. I had done what he wanted and he had, I felt, let the program down. Specifically, I felt that I needed a state-of-the-art espresso machine to enable real grinder testing. I had expected some help from David and ESI (who now had the information from my work at ESI) on the price of a single head Linea, but it didn't happen.

In the following weeks, I realized that I would have to really modify the hell out of the Linea to get what I wanted. I thought why would I want to spend all that money for the Linea and then more on top of it? It was time for a fresh look at espresso making. Our photography business was doing quite well at that time and required very little of my attention. So I said to myself I can build my own machine.

What did you find out as you started designing the Versalab M3 espresso machine?

We found out oddities I did not know existed. For example: We have found that water temperature is not as we commonly think it is. It is not a single number environment. This chunk of water is not 195.00 degrees. All liquids and gasses have an average temperature - which is what we speak of. But if you use a very high speed very accurate approach to water temperature measurement, as we did, you find out that it is completely made up of little autonomous globs of slightly different temperatures all moving about up and down. It is a thermodynamic fact (unknown to me at the time) that for each viscosity of the element, there is a size under which convection cannot change temperature, only conduction can. Within these little globs they are too small to support the bulk motion required for convection. Since change of temperature due to convection is enormously faster than conduction, the temperature of the globs are each very different. They float up and down based on their temperature relationship with the remaining globs. Several tenths of a degree Fahrenheit separates the extremes of them.

You can begin to see this if you look at a glass of slightly dark liquid such as whiskey with an ice cube in it. The turmoil in the liquid is precisely what we just described.

How did you zero-in on all the elements you will need to control?

I knew the existing machines had several faults: Brew temperature control; which requires controlling many other elements first; group; the entire pipelines, the portafilter and the boiler. They lacked precise vibration-free pressure control. They also needed the ability to program a pressure profile and pre-infusion, as well as control time and pressure during that cycle.

Some of those I knew to be important before I designed the machine, but others revealed themselves only after we were deep in development. I never thought a 0.1 bar difference in brew pressure can have such a noticeable affect on the cup. And the reason I never experienced it is because none of the machines I've looked at can control all the brew elements so precisely and at such a small pressure scale to be isolated.

Is there any new technology in the Versalab M3 espresso machine?

Not in the pure sense of the term. All the technology used in the machine is off the shelf. The novelty is not in the technology, but in the way it is implemented. Orchestrating all the elements to work together in a small package with very high precision was a huge challenge.

Were there any compromises made in the design of the Versalab M3 espresso machine?

Yes, there were, but not any compromises that would have improved the machine in a noticeable way. People often comment that price is very high, but the truth is, it could have cost twice as much. With the M3 espresso machine, we kept the cost as low as we could without compromising performance. The machine started as labor of love, and I expected I'd finish it within a year. But shortly I realized how much work was ahead of me. To truly be revolutionary in the design, I must control with great precision, elements that no one has controlled before in an espresso machine. How to do it required not just research, but mostly creative thinking. What I thought would take one year ended up taking four times that much and a lot more money than I anticipated.

Why design a new grinder?

It actually started with David Schomer. One of the first things we discussed was the need to improve espresso grinders. I read Illy's chapter on grinding, and took the DRM grinder apart. It was built like old Ferrari with all the problems such as running sheet metal screws into aluminum. The DRM does the two parts of grinding right—crushing and grinding. However, if fails on the rest—delivering the grounds fresh, unclumped and evenly distributed.

How did you come up with the design of the Versalab M3 grinder?

After looking at the DRM years ago, the grinder I conceived was more complicated. It included weighing and dosing with very high precision. But it was way too complicated, and I was under pressure to finish the espresso machine, so it was put on the back burner. The inspiration for the M3 grinder came from a hand grinder. I had one loaned to me on a trip to New York, after which I figured out that that's all you need: Top funnel, burrs and bottom funnel.

The idea for the sweep came out of necessity. Grounds come out of the burrs charged with static electricity. That is the reason why the Italians direct them through a tunnel out of the burrs and into the doser. Clumping the grounds into a tunnel discharges them of their static electricity. But, that design solves one problem and creates two other problems: It creates clumps, it upsets the grounds natural even density as they come out of the spinning burrs, and it tends to leave traces of old grounds stuck to the tunnel.

Why is there no dial scale on the Versalab M3 grinder?

I read your criticism, and others of the naked dial.

I had initially assumed that we would have a scale, as all grinders do. As I kept looking at possible solutions, nothing that didn't visually degrade the design could be made on the product's budget. We are a small shop and we produce that grinder in very small quantities.

In the meanwhile, we had resorted to the use of pencil marks on the prototype and I felt that this method was cheap, could hardly be seen, and was accurate. I felt that to make a scale that suited the grinder visuals that I had to machine them into the parts. That kind of work is very pricey.

What are you working on now?

With the grinder, I am now addressing another problem you mentioned in your review—dial consistency. The improved parts will be available within a week or two. It looks as if it is repeatable to less than .0001". Another thing we are testing this week is the effect of burr revolution speed on taste. There is no question that we can consistently taste a considerable difference in the shot with different burr speeds.

Well, I cannot conclude this interview without a geekie question. So here it goes: There is a concern that the ball bearings configuration used on the M3 grinder may not be sufficient to eliminate any oscillation of the shaft under load. What exactly are you using there, why, and did you test the shaft oscillation under heavy usage?

We use an inexpensive version of a pre-loaded pair of ball bearings. There is no free play in the shaft at all and it is well suited to do its job. It will also last a very long time. Using a real pre-loaded pair would have gained nothing, and added $365 to the retail cost. If you noticed I did not add a support bearing at the other end of the shaft, since there is no need for it. It is an unnecessary complication that would have added nothing to the grinder.

Please examine the following image.


"Paper and Duct Tape on Brass with Bubble Wrap" Circa 08/05. Artist - still at large.

Please tell me if you agree with the following statement: The attempt by an anonymous home user to slap a dial scale made of paper and duct tape on the M3 grinder is as classy as a monkey in a cowboy suit. It is an assault on the grinder and an insult to any person with a shred of style.

Oh yeah, I totally agree. It is also butt ugly. But I love what he did with the bubble wrap. It adds trailer park chic to the piece, something the grinder sorely needed. I think it will go real well with a deep fryer on the side. (OK Jim, he never said that, but boy, was he dying to Wink)

Let me then conclude with the following question: Are you going to add a dial scale to the M3 grinder?

No.

Okay, what if I asked nicely?

No.

I'm sorry, did you say no?

Yes.

So you are saying yes.

No. Seriously, I'm thinking about it and I'd like to find a way to do it without raising the grinder's price, and still satisfy the perfectionist in me. You're dealing with a man who'd rather freeze in the cold than wear a cheap suit. It's not easy being me.