Classic Project: Moka Express coffee maker
The story behind Alfonso Bialetti’s stovetop octagonal aluminium coffee maker.
Prior to the arrival in 1933 of Alfonso Bialetti’s stovetop octagonal aluminium coffee maker, there had been no satisfactory method of making espresso-style coffee in the home. To experience coffee made under steam pressure – as compared with domestic ‘drip brew’ gravity methods such as the ‘napoletana’– drinkers needed to visit cafés that had large, sophisticated and expensive espresso makers based on steam-train principles.
The Moka Express, although originally designed by Luigi De Ponti, was patented by Alfonso Bialetti and brought better-tasting coffee – though not, strictly speaking, espresso – into the domestic lives of millions. This came as a revelation to Italian women in particular, who under the leadership of the National Fascist Party’s Benito Mussolini weren’t often seen in cafés. In fact, Mussolini played an indirect role in the unusual material selection of aluminium over steel: having invaded Ethiopia he was keen to exploit the country’s bauxite reserves and so encouraged design engineers to employ the metal wherever possible in a bid to boost Italy’s depressed economy.
Although the Moka Express is often referred to as a stovetop espresso maker, the resulting coffee doesn’t qualify as a true espresso. Moka coffee is produced at the relatively low pressure of 1-2 bar (100-200 kPa), compared with espresso, required by current standards to be derived from a pressure of 9 bar (900kPa). The difference in pressure results in a different-tasting drink, critics of which find substandard and marked by a metallic taste. This has led to a ‘moral panic’ over whether ingestion of traces of aluminium from the pot carries a health risk: there is no scientific evidence to suggest a link between aluminium cookware and disease or illness. Experiments with replacement metals such as stainless steel show marginal ‘improvements’ in the final product that clearly nine out of ten Italian households have accepted in its traditional form.
More than 80 years on, the design of the Moka Express has changed little and remains a triumph of Modernist form following function. The reason for its cult status is its simplicity. There are only three main components in a machine producing coffee comparable to the resulting brew from machines that required expert piloting. The bottom chamber is a reservoir for water that, when boiled, is steam-driven (hence the name ‘espresso’) up a central column and through a basket holding ground coffee. The resulting liquid condenses and collects in the top chamber and the drink is ready. Initially, the machines were sold locally, with Alfonso himself selling them from market stalls. But in 1946, when Bialetti junior – Renato – took over the company, mass marketing of the now famous product kicked in and production rocketed from tens of thousands per annum to millions.
Such is the iconic status of the so-called ‘macchinetta del caffè’, which means small coffee machine, that the legend lives on despite its detractors. More than 300 million units of the Moka Express have been sold worldwide and when Alfonso Bialetti’s son died in 2016, ‘Italy’s Mr Coffee’ had his ashes placed in a giant octagonal aluminium coffee pot that was blessed by the parish priest, before being interred in the family tomb at Lake Maggiore.
Despite its humble beginnings, the design has made its way into the Museum of Modern Art and the Design Museum, where units may be bought from gift shops. It has also been categorised by the Daily Telegraph as one of the five indispensable gadgets of the ‘middle-class kitchen’.
Facts and figures: the Moka Express
Project: Moka Express coffee maker
Designer: Alfonso Bialetti, Luigi De Ponti
Cost: Two-cup version from £25
Can be seen in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Design Museum.
More than 300 million units sold globally.
9 out of 10 households in Italy have a Moka Express.
Named after the city of Mocha in Yemen, famous for its coffee beans.
Alfonso Bialetti was an engineer specialising in aluminium products.
The design has remained largely unchanged for eight decades.
The famous logo of the pointing man is a caricature of Alfonso Bialetti. The mascot was drawn by Paul Campini and shows Bialetti ordering another cup of coffee.
The design was inspired by early washing machines.
In 1930s Italy, designing in aluminium was encouraged to exploit the natural resources of bauxite in Italy’s colonial Ethiopia.
General arrangement based on current design
Steam release valve
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Bog material aluminium
Steam release valve
Fill to this level
Body material aluminium