How the Bialetti Coffee Maker Brought Coffee Into the Home

(Image credit: Jing)

To say that the Bialetti Moka Express stovetop expresso machine is iconic would be an understatement. With its classic design and simple functionality, it has inspired many a knock-off, and at some point or another, as a coffee lover you’ve probably owned one.

Here’s what you should know about the Bialetti and its long, storied history — plus the weird and unexpected place where it was invented!

I’m certainly a fan. Let’s put it this way: currently in my apartment there’s a rather large Bialetti Moka Express, a pair of earrings shaped like the Bialetti, a postcard that allows you to cut out a Bialetti and put it together yourself and a handprint of a Bialetti that I once made in a coffee-induced state of inspiration.

The History of the Bialetti Coffee Maker

This iconic coffee maker came to be in 1933, when Alfonso Bialetti manufactured a design by Luigi di Ponti for the first aluminum stovetop espresso maker. At the time, both coffee and aluminum were symbols of modernity. They hoped to combine these two things to create an enduring design classic.

And they certainly did; in the course of its producing, Bialetti has manufactured over 200 million coffee makers and 9 out of 10 Italians have a Moka Express in their homes. The design made drinking at home easy, switching a custom that predominantly took place outside of the home — at cafes — and making it a part of the domestic routine.

(Image credit: kasiQ kmjw)

Coffee at Home, Not Just the Cafe

“The fact is that the Moka is now inscribed in the collective memory of the Italian people. It formalised the then novel ritual of making coffee at home (until then an espresso was often the preserve of café culture), making the process intimate and familiar. With the reassuring rumble of the coffee being produced over a gas flame, it has established a connection with the public’s imagination that will continue to be repeated every morning regardless of the fashions currently prevailing on the market for electric, single-serving coffee machines with their packets and capsules,” wrote Alberto Alessi, Bialetti’s grandson in an article in 2011.

The Surprising Inspiration for the Bialetti

So where did the idea for such an iconic kitchen item come from? Nowhere near the kitchen in fact. The idea was actually spawned from the laundry, as Bialetti watched women, as well as his wife, wash their clothes with a primitive machine.

According to “Deconstructing Product Design,” by William Lidwell and Gerry Manacsa:

“Alfonso Bialetti observed the workings of their primitive washing machine: a fire, a bucket, and a lid with a tube coming out of it. The bucket was filled with soapy water, sealed with the lid, and then brought to a boil over the fire, at which point the vaporized soapy water was pushed up through the tube and expelled on to the laundry.”

He figured he could do something similar with coffee. What resulted was a stovetop espresso machine that pushes water up through coffee grounds, and out through a tube, ending up in the top part of the coffee maker.

In 1953, Bialetti commissioned a mascot from the Italian artist Paul Campani — the “little man with a mustache” or l’omino coi baffi in Italian. The well known mascot is still printed on the coffee makers today.

Having made its way into many homes around the world, the Moka Express has been exhibited everywhere from the Museum of Modern Art to the London Design Museum.

Not everyone loves the taste of Bialetti coffee, but there’s no denying that it has a definite place in our coffee history.