Iconic Design: The Chemex Brewer

I remember watching my dad, a builder, make coffee using a plastic cone loaded with a paper filter and fresh-ground coffee mounted over a large thermos. He’d pour boiling water over the grounds and let it brew before packing it into his truck for work each morning.

It wasn’t until many years later, at Houndstooth Coffee in Austin, that I had a similar coffee experience. A fellow customer was presented with a clear glass container with an inverted cone at the top—a Chemex. It looked similar to what my dad used when I was younger, but the device was elegant and sophisticated, even a little intimidating. I had to try it—I needed to see if something so beautiful could produce something that tasted great. Indeed, the coffee was perfect.

Chemex brewers are now ubiquitous in coffee shops around the country. Made of thin glass, and resembling two cones inverted upon one another (some versions have a glass handle, while others have a smooth wooden collar), the Chemex looks like  something out of a science lab. But a good cup of coffee is science, the result of a solid meeting a liquid and forming a complex solution through a combination of heat, time and filtration. And the Chemex uses all of those elements to make what many consider a superior cup.

Brewing by Design

The Chemex was invented in 1941 by Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, a German chemist who immigrated to New York in 1936. Schlumbohm developed more than 300 patented inventions over the course of his career, but the sleek, hourglass-shaped Chemex stands as the most enduring.

The basic design is the result of a few modifications to the chemist’s laboratory glass funnel and Erlenmeyer flask. To the funnel, Schlumbohm added a slender channel and indented spout; this allows air displaced by the liquid dripping into the flask to escape past the filter paper. To the flask, he added a simple “bubble” protrusion as a measuring mark to indicate one half of the volume below the bottom edge of the carafe’s midsection. Finally, he constructed a circular filter that is folded into the top half of the glass decanter, which is then filled with coffee for hot water to be poured over the top.

Schlumbohm’s goal was to devise a way to extract flavor and caffeine from coffee beans without bitterness, while also marrying functionality and design. The result was a useful everyday object that was also a thing of beauty.

For 75 years, the Chemex has been acclaimed as both an excellent coffeemaker and a work of art— the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum even have it on permanent display. But why is the coffee it produces so heralded? “The Chemex has withstood the test of time. it consistently and easily brews a pure, strong and clean cup of coffee,” says Eliza Grassy, whose family purchased the Chemex company in 1980. “It has never changed or needed to be improved upon.”

Setting a Standard

As senior director at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), Peter Giuliano has a solid grasp of what it takes to make a good cup of coffee. He uses a Chemex almost daily to make coffee for his colleagues at the office. “With coffee, low tech is totally okay,” he says. “In fact, it’s often better. Because the important thing is having water hot enough, and delivering it over the right amount of time. Very few appliances achieve that. At the SCAA, we have standards for what a coffee brewer at home should be able to do. at the end of the day, a person with a kettle and a simple device like a Chemex can make coffee that smokes almost any appliance.”

While Giuliano confesses to having a cupboard full of coffee appliances he’s collected over the years, he counts the Chemex as one of the most essential.

The first word that comes to mind when I think of a Chemex is ‘iconic.’

“Schlombohm introduced this perfect idea that could hold the filter at top and the coffee at bottom,” Giuliano says. “That simple insight has informed the design of all coffee brewers since then. You see that simple concept everywhere in appliances across the board. That overall design is truly iconic.”

Giuliano sees the Chemex as both timeless and representative of modern coffee culture. “When I first encountered the Chemex, I thought it was odd,” he says. “It has that midcentury modern [appearance], with glass and a thin waist like you’d find in the 1950s. And then this wooden collar with macramé bead, which resembles design from the ’70s. It has that beautiful mix of being modernist and retro craft, but it also has this scientific method behind its design. There’s this tactile aesthetic with the crafted wood collar that you can touch, but this sterile cleanliness that the glass beaker evokes. You can set this on a dining room table after any meal and it’s beautiful. it’s the perfect way to serve coffee.”

This story originally appears in the March/April 2016 Design Issue