Anatomy of a Classic: The Bialetti Moka Express

You’ve seen the iconic coffeemaker before, even if you’ve never used one—or don’t exactly understand how it works. A marvel of design elegance and technological simplicity, Bialetti’s aluminum Moka pot has been both a functional kitchen tool and a design icon for nearly a century.

Just how legendary is it? Bialetti has manufactured over 200 million of these shiny metal coffee pots so far. They’re reportedly in more than 90% of Italian homes—not to mention the Guinness Book of World Records and MoMA’s permanent collection. Of course, in the era of bottled cold brew, coffee pods and near-instant Nespresso machines, one might say that the humble stovetop brewer is an endangered species.

But that’s where its longevity comes in handy. The Moka Express has endured a lot and still makes piping hot, velvety smooth and flavorful coffee the same way as it did when Alfonso Bialetti, an Italian metalworker, invented it. Legend has it, he was struck with the idea while watching his wife use a lessiveuse, a galvanized metal washing machine that utilized a sealed boiler to launder clothes. It would draw soapy water up a central pipe and disperse it over the clothes. He decided to adapt the same process to make espresso.

The timing couldn’t have been better, as the Great Depression meant many Italian coffee-lovers had to give up their afternoon caffeine fix at the local cafe. But the Moka pot allowed them to replicate the ritual at home. Bialetti’s coffee maker has three chambers that are assembled quickly and intuitively. The lower chamber boils the water, forcing hot water through the ground coffee and filter within the center chamber. The top pot collects the finished brew. It also includes a patented safety valve to help prevent accidents.

Bialetti Moka Express design patent

The distinctive Art Deco details and octagonal shape were there from the day he first patented the design in 1933. Over the years, there were only minor refinements—the horizontal fold in the middle of the boiler was soon eliminated. And the shapes and materials of the handle and lid knob were first made from wood, then in bakelite and eventually plastic.

Why was the Moka Express so successful? Probably because it was easy to use, simple to maintain and reliable enough for daily use. Well that, and Alfonso Bialetti’s son, Renato, took over the family business. He was a shrewd marketer and also took advantage of the post-War glut of aluminum and skilled factory workers in Italy to boost production. Where his father sold about 70,000 coffee pots in the company’s fist six years of business, the younger Bialetti did those same numbers in just one.

Soon, the Moka pot made its way across the Atlantic and into countries with large Italian immigrant populations. Because of its lasting aesthetic quality, it remains an icon of mid-century industrial design. And because it’s still a solid way to make a rich, aromatic pot of coffee, we don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

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