Between 1957 and 1977, Carosello [the Carousel] was a 10-minute spot of advertising broadcast every night on Italian national television immediately after the evening news. More like a variety show than hard-sell publicity, it was so popular that it became normal practice in Italian households that dopo Carosello, tutti a nanna (‘all the kids to bed after Carosello’). A familiar cartoon figure on Carosello was the ‘little man with a moustache’, who had his finger raised high in the air while his mouth formed the letters of the alphabet. He was a caricature of Alfonso Bialetti (1888-1970), founder of Bialetti Industrie S.p.A., the Italian cookware giant, and the inventor of the Moka Express coffee pot.
Alfonso Bialetti apprenticed in the metalwork industry in France until 1918, when he returned to Italy and opened his own workshop in Crusinallo, a small village on the Piedmont side of the Lago Maggiore, first making semi-finished aluminium products and later designing and manufacturing market-ready kitchenware. During the 1920s, in an epoch in which it was still common for people to drink their coffee in public places like coffee bars, he came up with the idea of creating a stove-top espresso coffee pot that would, ‘without requiring any ability whatsoever’, enable people to enjoy ‘an espresso at home just like in a coffeehouse’. He had watched local women washing their clothes in a sort of sealed boiler that sucked the water up from the bottom and sprayed it over the top of the washing through a central tube. Using this principle, and working through significant technical problems, he developed many prototypes of his coffee machine, until finally, in 1933, he produced the Moka Express.
It was made of three main component parts. The steam in the bottom part reached high enough pressure to gradually force the boiling water up through the ground coffee contained in the middle, funnel-shaped filter, collecting the brewed coffee in the top part, ready to pour. Based on a popular silver coffee service found in upper-class Italian homes at that time, its design was Art Deco and its shape octagonal. It was easily dismantled for washing and reassembled for use. Because Italy was rich in bauxite, the basis of aluminium ore, and because, during the Fascist period, Mussolini had placed an embargo on stainless steel, Bialetti made his Moka Express out of aluminium, then called the ‘national metal’.
After 75 years, its design has remained the same, hiding the secret of its extraordinary success in its distinctive shape and in the aluminium, which maintains heat in a uniform way, enhancing the aroma of the Moka coffee, a specific type of rich coffee that comes from Ethiopia and is named after the historical Yemeni port on the Red Sea from which coffee has been exported to Europe since the eighteenth century.
Bialetti began selling his coffee pot personally at local and regional fairs. He sold about 10,000 a year. After World War II, his son, Renato, returning from a German prisoner of war camp, took over the family business. Perceiving the full potentiality of his father’s invention, he concentrated the company’s production on the coffee pot and moved operations into a new, modernised factory. Each year, he took part in the important annual Milan trade fair, where he created memorable displays. Most significantly of all, to ward off competition from copy-cat versions of the pot that began appearing on the market, he launched a national advertising campaign, using newspapers, magazines, billboards and the radio, as well as the famous ads on Carosello.
It all revolved around the drawing of his father as ‘the little man with a moustache’ created for him by Paul Campani in 1953. It became the company’s unmistakable trademark that we still see on its products today. Thanks to this campaign, production of the coffee pot jumped to 1,000 per day, making it the market leader in Italy, far outstripping its closest rival, the traditional Neapolitan percolator style coffeemaker.
At present, the company produces 16,000 Moka Express pots daily and has sold over 270 million globally. In fact, Alfonso Bialetti’s invention is used every day in 9 out of 10 Italian homes and countless others throughout the world. Voted as the fifth best Italian industrial design of the twentieth century, it has also become a design icon displayed in museums such as the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Science Museum in London, where Bialetti’s original blueprints can be found.
So, the next time you are at home savouring your espresso, whisper a silent ‘thank you’ to the washerwomen of Crusinallo.