by Art Chantry:
build a better mousetap and the world will beat a path to your door. right? except that it almost never turns out that way. so many people i know say things to me like “talent always wins” and similar platitudes. but, experience and history is a story of nothing but great ideas poorly sold and disappearing quickly. that’s how evolution works in theory. it’s not some “brilliant adaptation conquering the inferiors” at all. it’s almost a fluke when an improvement allows survival. the superior idea standing next to you could be taken down by a meteroite and set back history by a million years. lousy evolutionary backsteps also survive for millenia as well. that’s evolution, too. ‘survival of the fittest” just as easily means ‘luck of the draw.”
this a chemex coffee maker. it’s the greatest coffee maker ever designed. it’s simple (no moving parts) and easy and makes the best coffee i’ve ever had. it was designed by crazy late night scientists trying to stay awake. they needed more coffee, but had nothing to make it in. so, they simply took some beakers and flasks and funnels and jerry-rigged up a filter out of experiment materials and just MADE some coffee. it worked so well, they simply continued to make it that way. evolution at work.
the basic premise is that you take a flask like you see here, grab a disk of filter paper (like a lab uses) twist it into a cone and place it in the top funnel half. dump in ground coffee and pour in hot water. done.
one scientist with some sort of entreprenuerial bent (or maybe just bored) decided to try to manufacture and market their test tube coffee technique. some tiny modifications were needed to adapt it to the home consumer. for instance, when glass gets filled with hot coffee, it burns your hands when you touch it. so, originally, the ‘designer’ went into his home shop and formed a couple of enormously clunky chunks of wood held together with a leather thong that gripped the hour-glass middle. this acted as an insulator and allowed you to pick it up without a tongs. looked like hell, tho. the leather and wood didn’t go through a dishwasher worth crap, either.
also, when you have a wet cone filter gripping wet glass, it forms a perfect air tight seal, the result was that escaping air would percolate around the top edge of the wet, hot filter and splatter you with boiling hot coffee water. no good. so, they simply put a groove down the length of the funnel section and that allowed a channel to let air escape as the bottom half of the hourglass shape filled with hot water.
the design was simply, easy to clean and made friggin’ great coffee. now what? well, they needed packaging. being scientists, they didn’t have clue how to package this stuff. they were total DIY boneheads, after all. so, for the first decade of existence, the thing was sold in a box that looked just like a package that a bottle of chemicals would come in to the lab. monkey see, monkey do. the filters were sold separately (just like today) and came in large flat white ‘pizza-like’ boxes with big bold helvetica type on it that said “chemex coffee filters”. man, it looked like it was generic radioactive waste or something. it was downright scary looking.
the combination of ugly wooden ‘grip’ tied on with a leather thong, really butt-ugly packaging and ‘scientific’ charisma (or inherent lack thereof) made for the perfect trifecta of bad marketing of a brilliant design. the product sold ok, but not well. people who tried it became fans and swore by the quality of the coffee and the simple brilliance of the design. of course, people immediately started taking off the wood and leather ‘grip’ dealy-bobber in the middle (it really looked lousy.) they’d just pick up the hot chemex coffee pot with an oven mitt or hot pad. eventually, the master scientists realized the folly of their home shop design and installed a glass handle stuck onto their coffee maker. the chemex in this photo is a later model showing the nifty handle idea. D’OH!
it came too late to save the product. it simply died a slow unwatched unappreciated death and disappeared from the market entirely. the perfect moustrap thwarted by idiotic marketing and clumsy, barely functional decorative design thinking. now, it’s sort of one of my favorite stories of design. necessity was the mother of invention here. a wonderful functional quality design was created by need and instinct. the result could have changed coffee drinking into the elitist art form it has become today – a good 50 years before now. but, no.
i collect these things (of course). you can usually find them in thrift stores for a couple of bucks. nobody knows what they are, so they show up in glasswear sections or in toy departments, even. the idea that is one great coffee maker never seems to register when people see it (so bad is the design of that wooden grip). it came in a dozen different sizes (i have a one-cup chemex and also a gallon size.) i used them to make my coffee f
ecades. but, now they are all in my garage on a special designated shelf of honor. you see, these things don’t have timers on them. i like to wake up nowadays and have my coffee already there….
AC:…well, i never shop at whole foods. so, i managed to miss the nostalgic re-issue market. damn yuppies…