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The Enduring Design of the Chemex Coffee Maker

By Wesley Fenlon

Chemex inventor Dr. Peter Schlumbohm designed dozens of elegant products, but none have endured like the Chemex coffee maker.

If you haven't paid attention to the history of the Chemex coffee maker, you may be surprised to learn that it celebrated its 72nd birthday in 2013. The Chemex was invented way back in 1941 by Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, who left Germany in the 1930s and invented dozens of products in the United States that prioritized design over features. The Chemex is the perfect example: It's a sleek, curved glass container which requires little more than a filter to make a cup of coffee. The Chemex has endured for most of a century, when countless other coffee makers have come and gone.

Photo credit: Hagley Museum and Library

The Chemex was Schlumbohm's greatest invention, or at least his most popular. But this retrospective from Collectors Weekly reveals how many great ideas Schlumbohm had, and how skilled he was as a designer. All of his creations followed the same formula: Making an existing product better through simple and elegant design.

"Though the Chemex was his most successful invention by far, Schlumbohm tinkered with other ordinary objects long after the coffeemaker’s success," writes Collectors Weekly. "Some of Schlumbohm’s cleverest contraptions included the Instant Ice container, which chilled liquids quickly using brine; the Cinderella, a conical trash pail with disposable wax-paper linings; and the Minnehaha, a device that mixed and aerated drinks by forcing liquid through hundreds of tiny perforations. Schlumbohm also patented a stylish hot-water kettle made entirely of glass, a disposable aluminum frying pan, and a cigarette holder tipped with a miniature Chemex-shaped fitting that held a tiny filter, years before the tobacco industry adopted them."

Not only did Schlumbohm design his products with a flair for 20th century modernism, he did his own marketing and advertising, too. A LIFE magazine profile from 1949 said he had a real formula for his success: "20% was recognizing a problem that needed solving, 40% was coming up with a patentable solution, 30% was good design, and 10% was merchandising. [LIFE] wrote of Schlumbohm, 'He is the kind who perceives a problem and logically sets about finding a solution that will be efficient, handsome and profitable. Dr. Schlumbohm does all his own selling, writes his own advertisements, direction leaflets and brochures and even types his own patent applications—one draft only, since he refuses to make a mistake.' "

None of Schlumbohm's other inventions have endured like the Chemex, and some never made it into production.

His designs for a car called the Chemobile, for instance, rode high off the ground unlike most 1950s automobiles and gave passengers a 360 degree view of the world around them with huge curved windows. Even the popular Chemex faded into obscurity in the 1960s when electric coffee makers made an easier, if not better, cup of coffee.

But then, about five years ago, something happened: the Chemex started to become popular again. Sales have increased, and now the Chemex Company plans to re-release two of Schlumbohm's old Chemex designs in October. If you like a little 1950s design sensibility in your coffee, watch out for them.