Helmut Smits' The Real Thing
turns Coca-Cola back into water


Dutch Design Week 2014: Netherlands-based multidisciplinary artist Helmut Smits has developed a device for "a world in which drinking water can be harder to come by than Coca-Cola".

The Real Thing Coca Cola distillation machine by Helmut Smits

Helmut Smits worked with the Synthetic Organic Chemistry Group at the University of Amsterdam to develop a device to turn Coca-Cola into clean drinking water.

Called The Real Thing, the idea was originally conceived by Smits in 2006. The concept was turned into a fully realised distillation process for the Sense Nonsense exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, which opened in October during Dutch Design Week.

The Real Thing Coca Cola distillation machine by Helmut Smits

"I try to look at the world and the things around us as a child or as an alien, like I see things for the first time," Smits told Dezeen.

"When I looked at Coca-Cola that way, I saw dirty brown water, so it was logical to filter it back into clean drinking water, just as we do with all our waste water."

The Real Thing Coca Cola distillation machine by Helmut Smits

Smits' research revealed that the production of one litre of Coca-Cola can use up to nine litres of clean drinking water, a fact he described as "absurd".

"In some parts of the world people don't have access to clean drinking water, but you can buy a bottle of Coke there," he said.

The Real Thing Coca Cola distillation machine by Helmut Smits

The installation developed with University of Amsterdam masters student Martien Würdemann uses a simple distillation process.

The Coca-Cola is boiled in a container, producing water vapour that is funnelled into a glass. Minerals are added at the end to make sure it is safe to drink.

The Real Thing Coca Cola distillation machine by Helmut Smits

Smits had never originally intended to build a working installation and fully realise the project.

"I think there are two reasons for that. One – I think I'm quite lazy. Two – for me the concept is the most important part of an artwork, that's where I find the most pleasure," he explained.

"I did the research and found out that it could be done, it is possible to filter Coca-Cola back into clean drinking water, so then making a working installation for me is not that important anymore."

The Real Thing Coca Cola distillation machine by Helmut Smits

Smits was approached by one of the co-curators of Sense Nonsense, Agata Jaworska, inviting him to include the project in the exhibition organised by the Van Abbemuseum and Design Academy Eindhoven to explore the different approaches of designers and engineers.

"Time and time again, we see examples of when the seemingly illogical turns out to be perfectly logical," said Design Academy Eindhoven director Thomas Widdershoven, who co-curated the exhibition.

"A machine that filters Coca-Cola into pure drinking water suddenly makes a lot of sense in a world in which drinking water can be harder to come by than the multinational soft drink."

The Real Thing Coca Cola distillation machine by Helmut Smits

Despite interest generated by the exhibition, Smits has no plans to take the Coca-Cola project any further.

"I'm not planning on turning all the Coke in the world back into water, it's more to let people think about how we humans create the world around us and ask questions."

"I just want people to laugh and then hopefully think about the sh*t that they consume."

The Real Thing Coca Cola distillation machine by Helmut Smits

Sense Nonsense opened at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven on 18 October and runs until 9 November.

  • Lab Technician

    It’s a basic distillation method, not a machine.

    • Theo H

      Actually the ‘filtration’ comments seem more inaccurate, but either way, this is seriously dumbed down. Any high school chemistry student could tell you how this works, and probably also tell you that it’s not that exciting. And was Wim Delvoye’s digestion machine any better?

    • Hi there,
      We have amended the headline as we agree it was a bit confusing. The project on show is an evolution of a previous work that used a different process.

  • Jim

    My body turns Coca Cola into something more drinkable than the sugary beverage itself.

    • arhmatic

      And is slowly killing you in the process…

  • Substance before effect

    Could you please either employ knowledgeable journalists or ask some experts before posting an article? Some articles including this one are simply wrong and embarrassing to read. Dezeen will risk its own credibility by continuing in this way.

    • Hi there,

      We’ve just been in contact with the designer and amended the text, as some of the wording describing the process as “reverse osmosis” was associated with a previous version of the project. Is this what you meant? What other stories are you talking about? It’d be great if you could let us know so we can address any other issues.


      • Olof

        Pay no heed Dezeen, this is obviously someone very burnt out.

  • Speed

    “A world in which drinking water can be harder to come by than Coca Cola.”

    Coca-Cola sells bottled water.

  • Allan

    I like this idea that counterbalances the Coca-Cola propaganda seen lately. This company – as others like that – has to die fast for a better world. Why produce harmful products and advertise these? It’s criminal.

  • Mari

    Dear Olof,

    Thanks for your post. Rest assured that I am not burned out or in any other way under the risk of losing my interest in the design world. My criticism is directed towards an unreflected and uncritical copy and paste approach to journalism.

    This particular post is full of wrong and misguiding information, but let’s take it apart to explain.

    “Helmut Smits the Real thing is a machine that turns Coca Cola back into water.” No, it is not a machine it is an apparatus.

    “Netherlands-based multidisciplinary artist Helmut Smits has developed a distillation system.” No, he has not developed one, let’s give Greek alchemist in the 1st Century AD the credit for this. He has used a very well-known and commonly used process.

    I am not addressing the reverse osmosis issue here as this has been corrected already.

    My criticism is that for the sake of posting articles before they are published anywhere else, Dezeen misses a chance of doing its homework. If Dezeen is meant to be design journalism then at least a basic understanding of what is posted is critical.

    To copy and paste a press release by an artist is lazy and damaging for the credibility in the long term.

    I do like Helmut Smits’ concept but let’s name it what it is, a conceptual installation made of readily available laboratory fittings and tools.

    “Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.”

    Adrienne Rich

    • Olof

      Actually, scrap my last comment (knee jerk type), you make a pretty convincing case :P

  • Olof

    So you’ve got issues with this article, lay them out (as you just did). I actually agree. But may I suggest that you don’t overreach and exaggerate?

  • Hi there,
    We based our article on information in the exhibition text and a conversation with the artist. There was some confusion between an earlier version of the project and this installation, and we’ve amended the article accordingly. The distillation is straightforward, but the process requires an additional step at the end to make the water safe.
    We appreciate all reader feedback that helps us identify issues like this.

  • Ex Scientist

    I don’t think this is working. The issue sounds like a very “first world problem” where soft drink is cheaper and easier to get than water. Not so impressive.. :(

    Anyway, I saw this kind of thing everyday for years when I studied science. There’s nothing new here. No design nor art. Just because you just knew something, it doesn’t mean that it’s a new thing, or worse you think you invented it.

    • Wow

      So, not a viable solution in economic terms? Nothing gets past you!

  • lyle

    Anyone wanting to see a real device to do this process in quantity…. Should Google “slingshot kamen”.