Mr. Chemex: The Eccentric Inventor Who Reimagined the Perfect Cup of Coffee

October 4th, 2013

As part of our modern obsession with artisan-everything, today’s pickiest coffee drinkers insist upon a hand-brewed cup made right before their eyes. At the cornerstone of this trend is the undisputed king of pour-over coffee, the Chemex Coffeemaker, which graces the counters of hip homes and cafes around the globe. But this ingenious device is nothing new: In fact, the Chemex company has been making the exact same brewer for more than 70 years, proving the staying power of great design.

“It makes excellent coffee, and consists essentially of chemical laboratory equipment.”

The man behind Chemex’s functional-chic was Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, a scientist with a larger-than-life personality and a strong perfectionist streak. During his lifetime, Schlumbohm patented more than 300 different devices; at least 20 of these “Beautilities,” as Schlumbohm called them, eventually made it into the New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection—everything from an electric fan to a cocktail shaker.

Schlumbohm developed his products by stripping appliances down to their essentials and making them work better. In the vein of modern inventors like James Dyson, Schlumbohm didn’t overload his creations with a jumble of new features—he reshaped the industries he entered through the sheer force of innovative elegance. Maybe that’s why the Chemex still feels so fresh; in a world of overly complex and smirking technology, the Chemex remains a quiet anomaly.

Top: Dr. Peter Schlumbohm inspecting his most famous creation. Above: Two early ads for the Chemex coffeemaker, circa 1950s.

Top: Dr. Peter Schlumbohm inspecting his most famous creation. Above: Two early ads for the Chemex coffeemaker, circa 1950s.

A German immigrant to the United States, Schlumbohm received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Berlin and moved to New York in 1936 (just as Hitler was consolidating his power). Despite his friends’ protests about the dire state of the American economy during the Great Depression, only five years later, Schlumbohm had invented his famous hourglass-shaped brewer; within a few years of securing his patent, the Chemex was available in department stores and through mail order catalogs around the world.

Schlumbohm not only wanted to create a device to brew perfect coffee without a trace of bitterness, but also an elegant product that fit the streamlined aesthetic of Mid-Century Modernism. At the time, a few other companies were already manufacturing simple coffeemakers for home use, most notably the German brand Melitta.

In 1908, Melitta Bentz had been the first to develop a new solution for filtering coffee, using a sheet of blotting paper from her son’s schoolbook. By the 1930s, the Melitta company had created its familiar funnel-shaped porcelain brewer, whose pour-over brewing process became known as the “cone method.” Though devices like Melitta’s worked perfectly well, they just weren’t sexy, lacking the sleek, modern curves of Schlumbohm’s Chemex.

Left, the MoMA  brochure "Useful Objects in Wartime," and right, an ad explaining the Chemex preparation process, both from 1943.

Left, the MoMA brochure “Useful Objects in Wartime,” and right, an ad explaining the Chemex preparation process, both from 1943.

The Chemex is essentially a glass beaker designed to make coffee using a paper filter, coffee grounds, and water. A circular filter is folded into the top half of the glass decanter, filled with grounds, and hot water is poured over the top. A slender, indented spout allows steam to escape while brewing, or coffee to be poured once the filter and grounds have been discarded. The carafe’s midsection is surrounded by a shapely wood corset tied with a leather bow, which protects the hand from heat.

How to fold the Chemex filter.

From circle to cone: How to fold the Chemex filter.

“It’s one of the simplest ways of preparing a pot of coffee,” says Shark Senesac, the lead coffee roaster for De La Paz Coffee in San Francisco. “I think most people have this disconnect with how things are made in general, be it food or furniture or anything. But when you see someone make a cup of coffee with a Chemex, you think to yourself, ‘Wow, that’s all there is to the process?’”

A 1949 article in LIFE magazine called the Chemex “a typical bit of Schlumbohmiana since it is handsome (the Museum of Modern Art displayed it as one of the best-designed products in 1943), it makes excellent coffee, and consists essentially of chemical laboratory equipment—a chemist’s flask, a glass filter, and a piece of filter paper.” Despite its designer appeal and numerous accolades, the Chemex was relatively cheap: In the 1950s, the company’s 1-quart coffeemaker ran just $6, and today they generally fall in the $30-$40 range.

Though the Chemex was his most successful invention by far, Schlumbohm tinkered with other ordinary objects long after the coffeemaker’s success. 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.

Perhaps his most daring design was for the Chemobile, a squat family car featuring a cylindrical cab with panoramic windows, which offered passengers a vantage point Schlumbohm described as “like a maharajah riding in a basket on top of an elephant.” Through his sketches for the Chemobile project, Schlumbohm made it clear that he wasn’t irked by the mechanics of modern automobiles, only their form.

In a company newsletter from 1956, Schlumbohm attacked the American auto industry for selling clunky machines that didn’t function well for city dwellers: “Detroit just spent millions for lower and longer 1957 Dachshunds. Never mind. A whispered truth remains a truth. A shouted lie remains a lie.” Unfortunately, despite his passion, the radically different Chemobile succumbed to the mid-century automotive ethos of “bigger is better,” and never made it to production.

Left, Schlumbohm at the drawing board with a rendering of the Chemobile, and right, a section of the vehicle's patent sketch.

Left, Schlumbohm at the drawing board with a rendering of the Chemobile, and right, a section of the vehicle’s patent sketch.

In many ways, Schlumbohm’s little company embodied the professed ideals of today’s tech startups, as he worked to develop new products that simplified our harried lives, undercutting more established, slow-moving businesses. As Schlumbohm wrote in a company newsletter in 1956, young people should “ignore the lure of a big company’s payroll with its nerve-killing conformism, to go out on their own, to be their own boss, to apply their knowledge to creating Beautilities instead of gorilla-guided missiles.”

“He was very creative, and did all of his own marketing and writing,” says Grassy. “We have the original filing cabinets from Chemex, and they’re just filled with all of these different cartoons and newsletters and advertisements, all sorts of things that he wrote throughout the years. He even patented words to describe his inventions.”

Evolutionary history, as seen on the Chemex company Christmas card from 1953, with illustrations by Roy Doty.

Evolutionary history, as seen on the Chemex company Christmas card from 1953, with illustrations by Roy Doty.

In the LIFE magazine piece from 1949, Herbert Brean detailed Schlumbohm’s formula for a successful new product: 20% was recognizing a problem that needed solving, 40% was coming up with a patentable solution, 30% was good design, and 10% was merchandising. Brean 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.”

Brean also highlighted Schlumbohm’s unconventional schedule, which the inventor insisted helped to fuel his creativity. On a typical weekday, Schlumbohm woke up late, worked on a few new ideas in the kitchen of his stylish penthouse, dropped by the small Chemex factory during the late afternoon (to check on his mail and eight female employees), and ended the evening hopping from restaurant to bar to restaurant again, where many of his best ideas originated. Schlumbohm liked to live large, cruising around Manhattan in a personalized Cadillac featuring a golden hood ornament shaped like a Chemex.

Schlumbohm's cigarette holder incorporated a tiny Chemex using size-appropriate filters like those for making coffee.

Schlumbohm’s cigarette holder incorporated a tiny Chemex using size-appropriate filters like those for making coffee.

After Schlumbohm’s death in 1962, his company had trouble maintaining its relevance, despite the integrity of its products. Senesac explains that the Chemex had mostly faded into obscurity during the consumer-appliance boom of the 1950s and ’60s, as people with means preferred an electric device that both boiled water and brewed their coffee for them. “In the ’60s, when microwaves and all these other electric home appliances came out, everyone wanted coffeemakers that automated the process so you didn’t have to make it yourself anymore,” explains Senesac. “Everyone wanted a machine.”

Chemex vice-president Eliza Grassy says that for much of the last 50 years, the Chemex customer base has remained a small cult-following of dedicated coffee hounds. Grassy’s family purchased the company in 1980, but only recently did they begin to notice the uptick in demand for their coffeemakers. “Within probably the past five years, the numbers have picked up considerably,” she says. “We’re selling many more coffeemakers than we ever had domestically and also internationally.”

This 1950s window display at Hammacher Schlemmer in New York shows a variety of Chemex innovations.

This 1950s window display at Hammacher Schlemmer in New York shows a variety of Chemex innovations.

The Chemex comeback occurred just as mainstream coffee drinkers were growing accustomed to the unique flavor profiles of different coffees and preparation methods, thanks to giants like Starbucks. Many began to realize that familiar brewing processes cause specific problems: Methods like the French press use metal filters, which allow insolubles to leak into the coffee, while other devices underheat the water or percolate the coffee for too long.

Senesac first saw a Chemex at a friend’s house about a decade ago, and something instantly clicked. In contrast to the mysterious black-box method of most coffee machines, the simplicity and transparency of the hand-powered Chemex came as a total relief. “I hadn’t ever seen that method of brewing coffee before,” he says. “It was so easy, it made so much sense.”

Of Schlumbohm’s many inventions, only the Chemex coffeemaker and its accessories are still made today, and this analog relic with an expanding market share is an aberration in our increasingly digitized world. Grassy says that Chemex sales have increased to the point that the company has decided to release two new products in October based on vintage Chemex designs. “We hope to continue this throughout the years, not inventing new patents, but bringing back some of his old ones,” she adds.

An advertisement for a travel version of Schlumbohm's bladeless Filterjet fan.

An advertisement for a travel version of Schlumbohm’s bladeless Filterjet fan.

With the revival of the Chemex method, a few companies making large-batch brewers have refined their machinery to produce coffee almost identical to a pour-over brewer. Modern machines like FETCO’s now give baristas the power to customize a batch of coffee, letting them quickly brew a gallon that’s as good as a single pour-over cup.

Even so, these machines cost 10 to 20 times as much as a Chemex, and can only brew one kind of coffee at a time. Plus, they don’t have the Chemex cachet, this artisanal aura that comes from unveiling the magical brewing process. “People want to be hands-on whenever they can,” says Senesac. “It brings them closer to the things they’re consuming.

“I always thought of the Chemex as a similar phenomenon to the Eameses and their famous chairs,” he continues. “They remade something that everybody already had, but they made it accessible and beautiful and everyone wanted one. All you do is sit on them, but everyone wants to look at them, too. The Chemex is in the permanent collection of the MoMA for a reason.”

Schlumbohm and a few of his inventions, as shown in LIFE magazine in 1949.

Schlumbohm and a few of his inventions, as shown in LIFE magazine.

 

14 comments so far

  1. Dave Says:

    If you’re brewing through a paper filter, you’re far from getting a “perfect” cup of coffee.

  2. Happy Says:

    This article seems to imply that this method of coffee making is in some way superior to others.
    Seriously? Filtered through paper and *brewed*?
    America is only recently just getting to know proper coffee making. Let’s not take any backwards steps.

  3. John Says:

    ‘Dave’ cannot be more wrong: have a look at the World Championship in Coffee Brewing (www.worldbrewerscup.org) and what the champions are exercising; the oils and the flavors are coming through :)

  4. David Says:

    The video explains you should “rinse” the filter and Chemex with hot water first. This removes most of the parchment flavor and warms the glass. The hot water is then disposed of.

  5. Brian Says:

    I enjoyed this article the first time I read it back in 2008.

    http://www.gourmet.com/food/2008/06/schlumbohm?currentPage=1

  6. William Letendre Says:

    Back in the ’50s as a young teenager I worked in a print shop in Paterson, NJ. called “Modern Typesetters”. Dr. Schlumbohm was one of our customers. We composed and set up all his promotional material and ads for his products including the infamous Chemex Coffeemaker. Mr. Schlumbohm would periodically show up in person with mockups of material he wanted typeset. He was indeed a strange character…. oh the memories!

  7. Johnny on the spot Says:

    Dave- you are far from knowing anything about perfect coffee, “apparently”

  8. cindy Says:

    I had 2 Chemex Coffee makers decades ago. The idea is good but 2 bad things, 1) bleached coffee filter paper, 2) the glass is fragile. My mom had Pyrex coffee pots with study glass. Chemex’s is too thin. Barely tapped, they crack. Wasn’t worth the $40 replace a third time. The Melitta ceramic pour over is better. Or espresso making to eliminate a paper filter.

  9. Joan Laliberte Says:

    I saw my first Chemex many years ago when I was in College in Portland. It made the best coffee I had ever tasted. Later, I bought my own. Eventually, that was broken. Now, thanks to Sur la Table, I have another. It still the best. I’m using unbleached filters. The pot is very easy to clean, since there are no oils nor sediment. The coffee is strong but not bitter.
    The only other coffee maker that has come near this was a two-level, stovetop glass vacuum pot my mother had when I was a child. They don’t seem to be made anymore.

  10. CLARISSE Says:

    I have just started using my Chemex
    Coffee maker and the difference is amazing…
    No harsh, bitter aftertaste…Just a smooth
    Delicate flavor… I like the French roast…
    And, it doesn’t take anymore than
    A few minutes to prepare… If you enjoy really
    Good coffee, you must try this…everything
    Else just pales in comparison…

  11. B Qunn Says:

    Started with Chemex in the 1970s as the first coffee maker I ever bought from a specialty coffee store in, probably, Greenwich Village, NYC, where I was then living. Learned the entire ritual, akin to the tea ceremony, and enjoyed it a lot. Upgraded over time to larger and larger ones, until they began to break too easily (the largest one, which bulges out on the bottom to hold the greater volume, is very unwieldy (but necessary if you need to make a lot of coffee)). Moved west for some years, still using the Chemex, came back east, growing family, went in other directions, i.e., Krups, Mr. Coffee, etc. At one point even had a Krups double machine that would simultaneously make two pots of coffee, e.g., one caf and one decaf. (Also had many espresso machines, e.g., Baby Gaggia, but that’s another story.) A year or two ago came back to Chemex, and it works as well as it always did, makes superb coffee.

    You don’t need to use their filters, the cheap filters from A&P work just fine, although you do have to double them up as they may fall apart. And the beaker is extremely easy to clean, use the little firehose that comes with your sink and turn the beaker upside down and just spritz everything away. It will build up a film over time, in which case you have to use the Chemex brush to get in there and clean it out it’s the only tool that absolutely works a few drops of detergent and then again make sure you rinse out all the soap and it works simply and perfectly. An elegant design.

    As to machines, the only machine that makes good coffee is the Tassimo, which makes superb coffee one cup at a time, espresso, cappuccino, all that. The others, e.g. Kuerig, Starbucks, Nespresso, are better than industrial or military strength coffee that has been cooking in the pot for hours, but that doesn’t say very much. Tassimo absolutely makes coffee as good as Chemex, only one cup at a time and more expensive.

    Back to the future! Chemex is the best.

  12. B Qunn Says:

    One more thing. A real test of how good the coffee is is to let it sit for two days and then reheat it and see how drinkable it is. Most coffeemakers make coffee with so many impurities and off-flavor elements that the coffee is manifestly undrinkable as soon as it cools off the first time. With leftover coffee from the Chemex, it isn’t the same as a fresh cup but it isn’t bad after one or even sometimes two days. That’s because the coffee was well-made extracting the flavor and leaving all the crap behind in the filter, and also because the system itself, being mainly just a glass beaker, which you should keep clean, is so simple – there are no other big baked-on impurities hidden in the system to soil the coffee (and no heating pad to turn it into mud). So, try it, you’ll see, it’s a backwards way to test, but it does illustrate how excellent the cup of coffee made by Chemex is in the first instance.

  13. Raphael Says:

    Coffee sans harmful lipids.

  14. Jim T. Says:

    Nice read overall. The Chemex has such a rich history for the coffee world and this certainly got the point across. I’ve read a few comments earlier on mentioning not to use a paper filter anymore for your Chemex and I couldn’t agree more.

    I go the route of stainless steel reusable Chemex filters. They’re super efficient and really let those oils come through. I noticed a difference in my brew immediately when I first used one. Overall I always felt the paper filters, being so thick, just left too much of a paper-like taste in my coffee.

    Crucial Coffee makes a real good stainless steel filter, in fact this is the specific one I use. http://www.crucialcoffeesupply.com/chemex-coffee-filter-stainless-steel-washable.html

    Like I said the oils really come out from the beans and it helps make an exceptional cup of coffee. I think they still have this deal going on if you use the code ‘COFFEELOVER’ at check out they give you free shipping and 10% off.

    Happy Brewing all and yet again awesome article.


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