Alfonso Bialetti’s espresso machine was originally a symbol of modernism and empire during Mussolini’s heyday. But its engagingly simple operation and distinctive design have become the epitome of Italian style
First patented in 1933, the Moka Express – a distinctive eight-faceted perculator – is a design classic, a piece of humble kitchenware that is now in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Design Museum. It’s a simple device with three parts: the user pours water into a base, up to the line of a safety valve, drops into this a funnel loaded with coffee, and then screws on a collecting chamber into which the coffee condenses. The ritual of putting it together has something of the satisfaction one imagines comes with assembling a gun. Turning on the stove, one awaits the characteristic gurgling noise that heralds a Vesuvian eruption of aromatic coffee.
The Italian manufacturer Alfonso Bialetti invented the Moka during a period of ascending fascism. His coffee pot was made of aluminium, which Mussolini hoped to make the national metal of Italy, a country rich in bauxite. An advertising campaign from the time described the metal as “AVIONAL” and “ANTICORDIAL”, neologisms that evoked airplanes and the everlasting, a modern world of speed, sturdiness and strength. The Moka seemed to embody Italy’s unyielding destiny, a little machine that – after the fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 ensured a steady supply of coffee beans – united the empire and modernism. It was no accident that Marinetti, the father of futurism, described himself as the “caffeine of Europe”.
Before Bialetti invented the percolator, home-brewing kits dribbled hot water over coffee grinds, resulting in a taste completely unlike the espresso bought in coffee bars, with their complex machines resembling steam trains. At a time of economic struggle, the Moka used pressure to extract the best from the bean, bringing this taste – and the requisite crema – to the home. Bialetti got the idea from the laundry methods used by local women doing washing on the shores of Lake Orta: they boiled their load over an open fire in a pot with a lid and a central pipe, which drew up the soapy water and redistributed it over the laundry.
During the 1930s, Bialetti manufactured about 10,000 units a year but production was halted by the war. When his son, Renato, returned from a German POW camp, he took over the business, marketing the Moka, self-consciously, as a design object. In the early 1950s, during the annual trade fair in Milan, he conducted massive advertising campaigns, for which he rented every available billboard. These adverts featured the Moka, and a slogan promising “In casa un espresso come al bar” – an espresso at home just like in the bar. In 1956, the entrance to the fair was dominated by an enormous sculpture of a Moka, at least 6m high, pouring an endless stream of coffee into a waiting cup.
From 1953, the Moka featured the company mascot, an avuncular little man with a black suit and impressive moustache, a caricature by Paul Campini of Renato Bialetti, his hand up as if ordering another espresso. The Moka was sold as a masculine object – men were to feel comfortable in the guise of a barista as they brewed their masculine beverage. The “l’omino coi baffi” – the little man with a moustache – appeared in television adverts and, in a state-of-the-art factory in Omegna, northern Italy, production shot up to 1,000 units a day. The design has changed very little over the past 80 years and, to date, an estimated 330 million units have been sold. Nine out of ten Italian homes have one, and consequently the Moka has become a symbol of Italy, as saturated with nostalgia as the Fiat 500 or Vespa scooter.
Image: Luke J Albért