Nothing says good morning like the sound of bubbles rising as you lift your espresso maker from the stove. It wasn’t always so easy and affordable to make coffee at home, though. It was the invention of the humble Italian Moka Express—the first stovetop espresso machine created by aluminum industrialist Alfonso Bialetti in 1933—that made your morning caffeine routine possible. Before that, espresso in Italy was a substance mainly consumed by men in public coffee houses, where they’d spend long afternoons smoking cigarettes, playing cards, and sipping their drinks. Over the next several decades, the Moka Express had emancipatory significance for women: it gave them easy access to coffee for the first time, and in the 1950s, the modest design icon’s marketing also challenged traditional gender roles in the home. Drinking coffee was never so radical.
Today, nine out of ten Italian households own the practical Moka Express, and from the 1950s to the present day, Bialetti has sold over 200 million of them. The celebrated appliance—with its recognizable eight sides and mustachioed mascot—has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and the London Design Museum. But the person behind the design wasn’t a designer by trade at all; when giving his invention a look and shape, Bialetti simply copied the functional designs that were most fashionable in the mid ’30s, when a lack of ornamentation and geometric symmetry reigned supreme.
According to company legend, the idea came to Bialetti one evening while watching local housewives wash laundry in his hometown of Crusinallo. The women would fill a tub with soapy water, bring it to a boil over an open fire, and let the vaporized water rise up through a connected tube and wash over the dirtied linen. In a moment of inspiration, Bialetti dashed to his nearby metal and machine store and applied the housewives’ method to coffee making. It seems wholly appropriate that the design that introduced women to modern coffee culture was inspired by a process itself perfected by women, one that streamlined time-consuming domestic labor.
Bialetti finalized his prototype and gradually began producing units, but the inventor knew next to nothing about marketing; relatively few coffee makers were sold between 1934-1940. Bialetti was selling the product at small public markets and at his own modest storefront, which was cluttered with a range of other metal appliances. During the war, coffee was scarce, and metal even more so. Moka Express production dwindled. Eventually, Bialetti closed down his shop entirely.
It wasn’t until after the war, when Bialetti’s eldest son Renato took over the family business, that the Moka Express flourished. It was eventually produced, marketed, and sold on a mass scale. During the ’50s, Renato brought a playful yet strategic sensibility to its advertising and branding, and shrewdly fabricated the appliance in a full range of sizes to suit different families and needs. He strove to create a distinctive brand that pulled on the public’s heartstrings, combining nostalgia for pre-war traditions with imagery informed by America’s rampant consumerism and new recognition of the female consumer.
Renato commissioned a mascot by the Italian cartoonist Paul Campani as part of the company’s new strategy; the beloved l’omino coi baffi (“the little man with the mustache”) still graces the lower chamber of the appliance. This popular mustachioed man—rumored to be based on Alfonso, but also uncannily similar in appearance to Renato himself—not only differentiated the product from the increasing number of imitators, but also spoke to the grandfathers and older uncles who remembered their beloved lazy evenings in coffeehouses before the war. Just as in those days, the little cartoon figure raises his finger up high, as if gesturing to a barista for “one espresso.” The direction of his point when he’s placed on the appliance also enacts the path that the coffee takes as it’s made: water boils up and—alongside the familiar sound of bubbles rising—that “one espresso” is complete.
Renato’s advertising, on the other hand, transported the coffee shop to the home in a way that was distinctly egalitarian and modern. Campaigns featured women drinking espresso around a table, conversing with men in suits. These images transferred espresso to a domestic space along with the intellectual debate and conversation that came with coffee culture. Many ads presented women preparing espresso themselves, or even more subversively, others depicted men in the kitchen using the appliance—a bold reversal of conventional gender roles. One billboard featured a young boy asking, “Where’s Daddy?” The mother responds, “He’s in the kitchen with the Moka Express.”
Short comics and animated television ads also showed l’omino coi baffi making coffee in the kitchen. These step-by-step guides emphasized speed and simplicity. Another popular ad showed a group of women in stylish black turtlenecks and trousers sipping espresso while ballet clothes hang nearby; they study classical dance and sip classic espresso, says the writing on the poster, but do so in modern clothes,after preparing the drink in the modern way. Under Renato’s lead, marketing underscored the synthesis of old and new, and the Bialetti company would blitz the public with these messages, occasionally purchasing every available billboard in the entire city of Milan. The streets overflowed with pictures of the Moka Express, as if the product was part of the very heart of the city, representing and allowing for the mingling of its old traditions and new way of life as the disruptive fascist past began to fade.
Women’s ingenuity is a crucial part of the design story of the Moka Express. Its invention rendered coffee drinking no longer a predominately male practice for Italians, and the product’s marketing became intertwined with shifting gender politics. All that history bubbles to the surface every morning as we lift the classic coffee maker off the stove, and pour its deep, dark brown liquid into a ceramic cup to start the day.