The Modern Moka Pot and Coffee Politics
Having spoken about Italian coffee culture in a previous blog, I feel it is important to speak about the effects of the moka pot on modern life. It may seem like just another way to make coffee, and god knows there are a lot, though the moka pot has a role in modern art and politics, surprisingly enough. More generally, I’d like to tell you a bit about the history of coffee in society and how it functions as an integral part of Italian life.
If you’ve ever been to Italy, you’ll know that people love to have lively discussions over an espresso or three. However, it is less well known that this activity has been happening for centuries. Coffee first arrived in Europe in the 16th century. Venice was one of the first European ports in Europe to import coffee beans. Originally describing coffee as “Satan’s drink,” Pope Clement VIII gave his blessing upon tasting it for the first time and thus began coffee culture in Italy. Drinking coffee was important for socialising, as well as politics, because cafés served as meeting places. The sophisticated atmosphere and food meant that aristocrats and artists alike had a place to meet and mingle. It was not until the 19th century that more practical ways of making coffee were developed, meaning that people could make and enjoy coffee from their own homes.
The Moka pot’s design was largely influenced by the futurist movement. Futurists’ admiration for technology and metallic modernity, as well as Italy’s rich supply of bauxite and leucite, which are used to make aluminum, lent itself to the creation of the Moka pot. Aluminium was presented as the national metal of Italy. For this reason, Mussolini imposed a ban on stainless steel. Bialetti, the creator of the moka pot, was forced to close down his workshop during the course of the Second World War, as the use of aluminium was reserved for the production of arms and war materials. Following the war, the rise of unemployment meant that mass production of the moka pot was made possible. In 1953, Bialetti’s son, Renato, commissioned Paul Campani to create the iconic logo that is present on every Bialetti moka pot to this day. The ‘Omino coi Baffi,’ or “the little mustachioed man,” is a caricature of Alfonso Bialetti himself, with his finger pointing up into the air. Renato took charge of the advertising aspect of the business. One year at the Milan trade fair, a 6 meter sculpture of a moka pot stood at the entrance. The slogan used at the fair encapsulated the role played by Bialetti moka pots; “in casa un espresso come al bar,” which translates to “an espresso at home just like at the bar.” These pots made the luxury of drinking coffee accessible to Italian families of all incomes.
Today, Moka pots are still widely used in Italy and Europe on a day-to-day basis. However, they have also come to prominence through Art Deco and futurist designs. One of the most famous examples of this is Richard Sapper’s 9090 espresso maker for Alessi, made in 1978. This rocket-shaped coffee maker was shiny and sleek, perfectly representing the Art Deco style. In 1979 his design won the Compasso d’Oro award and is part of MoMA’s permanent collection in New York. The moka pot was popular among futurists, who admired power, modernity and technology. The octagonal shape, as well as the sleek, metallic style fit this design to a tee. Despite this design becoming an iconic piece of art, its origins were very personal to Alberto Alessi, president of Alessi. He felt it was an homage to his grandfather, Alfonso Bialetti.
The moka pot has been incredibly influential in Italy by popularising and standardising the coffee drinking experience for all Italian people. It resonates with many people as the traditional and best way to inexpensively make delicious coffee from home. The combination of futurist design and the ready availability of aluminium in Italy, meant the most widely used coffee maker in Southern Europe could be created. Similar to the culture of food bringing people together, coffee has historically done the same. Many a political or philosophical debate has been sparked over a piping hot espresso. The history of the moka pot and coffee culture is fascinatingly complex and has become integrated into the lives of so many people of all backgrounds.