Friday, March 8, 2019

Chemex: The Original Design-Lover's Coffeemaker

Recently I was excited to find a vintage Chemex coffeemaker from the 1970s. We sell the Chemex line at the store, and I have a small 3-cup version I use myself, but this vintage one was the older style with the sharp angles - like the one included in the MoMA collection and the handmade version currently in production.

The Chemex Coffeemaker was designed in 1941 by Peter Schlumbohm. He was a chemist and used his scientific knowledge to develop the functional aspect of the design. The aesthetic aspect was inspired by the German Bauhaus, specifically their work with heat-resistant borosilicate glass (see the famous glass teapot designed by Wilhelm Wagenfeld).

For over 30 years it was the only real design-forward coffeemaker. Photos of architectural interiors through the 50s and 60s would regularly feature a Chemex in the kitchen, and it was often featured in popular media. Even James Bond, obviously better known for his specifications with a martini, preferred his coffee made in a Chemex. It wasn't until Braun introduced the famous KF 20 in 1972 that another coffeemaker was deemed worthy of discussion as a design object (a great overview of *that* over at Core77).

Mary Richards knew what's what.

Looks aside, Chemex would never have endured if it didn't make an outstanding cup of coffee. In many ways it is the original pour-over, but the combination of that method with the bonded paper filter is what really made it better than the others.

As both a design object and a way to brew a connoisseur's cup of coffee it endured well into the 80s. As often happens, trends emerge and it fell out of favor. Advances in the technology of the very convenient drip coffeemaker as well as the emergence of the stylish French press relegated Chemex to the back burner (so to speak) for a while.

From a 1982 Naugahyde ad in Playboy.

Of course today it has found renewed popularity, and deservedly so. It comes in two styles, both of which I sell at Hugh (links take you to the website) - the handmade version, which is identical to the Chemex as it was originally designed, and the "Chemex Classic," which has had a few tweaks to make it easier to mechanically produce.

Handmade (L) and Chemex Classic (R)

The handmade has a bit more heft and the subtle elegance that is the characteristic of mouth-blown glass. As the "original" version, it is often preferred by design lovers and for special occasions. The Chemex Classic is less expensive and a great everyday coffeemaker. But both function identically - that is to say, brilliantly. If you haven't tried coffee made in a Chemex, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.

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