A Design Classic

The explosion in everything coffee has been extraordinary to behold over the last decade or so. New ways of making coffee at home seem to appear every week. Capsules, Pods, Aeropress, Hario and Chemex are products that have gone from having a niche audience to mainstream in an incredibly short period of time. One coffee maker though that has stood the test of time is the Bialetti stove-top coffee maker.

It was patented for the first time in Italy by the inventor Luigi De Ponti for Alfonso Bialetti in 1933. Extraordinarily much like the London Underground railway map it has remained fundamentally unchanged in all that time. There are lots of coffee makers that are easy to use and do a good job when it comes to making a decent cup of coffee but will be quickly forgotten when a new “sexier” way of making coffee comes to the fore.

Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “Creative destruction” in his book “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” published in 1942. In essence he described a phenomena we all recognise today particularly in electronic goods that the moment we buy something it becomes outdated. It’s therefore sometimes comforting to know that this isn’t always the case in our manic world.

The mechanics of a stove-top are very simple. There are in essence 3 parts. The base (A) which holds the cold water. The ground coffee holder (B) which holds surprisingly the ground coffee and finally the top section (C) into which the brewed coffee collects and from which it is poured. There is very little to go wrong and it will work on most heat sources.

Of course the same can be said of many other coffee makers but there’s something special about the Bialetti that has made it enduring through the generations.

Visually it is well proportioned. It has a robust, sturdy appearance giving a sense of being fit for purpose. It is very tactile, so when it comes to the practicalities of filling the base with water or the filter with coffee everything is easy to hold and grip without fear of slippage or something inadvertently being broken.

For consistency there is no messing around. The base can only be filled to a specified level. The ground coffee holder just needs to be filled and levelled and finally the base and top screwed together tightly. Switch on your heat source and leave the machine to do its thing.

This coffee maker is also a lesson in physics! By heating the water in the base the pressure increases steadily. As your teacher will hopefully have taught you that pressure will look to move to a lower pressure point in search of equilibrium. In the case of the Bialetti the water is pushed up through the tube and into the ground coffee. Here again physics intervenes. The finer the coffee is ground the harder it will be for the water to pass through. There is an optimum “contact” time when perfect flavour extraction is achieved. Most people will use an “espresso” grind to achieve the best results. Finally the brewed coffee will pass up the tube in the top section and out into the receiving chamber.

The heat used to brew the coffee also warms the coffee maker which means that the brewed coffee stays hot unlike many of today’s more manual coffee makers.

Finally there’s the aroma created by freshly brewed coffee and the sound of the coffee as it brews. It really is a very sensual experience in every respect.  

So what makes a design classic, that  defeats the winds of Schumpeter? I guess it’s when something cannot be fundamentally improved. It fulfils all our requirements of it with the minimum of fuss. Move over the smart ‘phone and hand me that coffee!