The end of World War II ushered in the modern era for consumer products. Newer materials like plastic, combined with a postwar mentality on homesteading, brought about a new wave of curvy, colorful wares. Their simple, seamless designs weren’t just seductive; they targeted stay-at-home moms with the promise of easy use and easier cleaning—and even, perhaps, taste.
This moment (spanning the 1960s to 1980s) is the subject of Soft Electronics, a new book by Gestalten based on Dutch designer Jaro Gielens’s personal collection of thousands of electronics from the 20th century. And in this book full of their photographs, a line is drawn from a 1962 Sunbeam iron (the first iron with a handy sprayer) all the way to the Macintosh and the Clapper.
But the single object that gets the most attention in the book is, undoubtedly, the humble coffee maker. Reading through a prerelease copy, I was shocked at the pure volume of remarkable designs that I have never seen. I’d heard of the Braun Aromaster KF20—a masterpiece by German industrial designer Dieter Rams—but had little clue how many other superior designs were made in the era.
Why were there so many beautiful coffee makers? “Most likely because this was the largest market [for consumer appliances], with very good margins at the time,” Gielens says. “Similar to hair dryers, these were products that would be replaced every couple of years—products that could be sold multiple times, with updated designs and promising improvements in performance, durability, and ease of use. On top of that, coffee makers were the flagships of a company, and a good way to also sell other products.”
Coffee grinders get a lot of love, too. Take a look at the Coffee Grinder Major from Girmi (1965). Its form resembles a mushroom. But note the spiraling white pattern that runs up its base. That’s a power cord, ornamentally integrated into the design.
In 1973, Philips released the two-tone HD5113 by Hans Julkenbeck. The orange-on-white design is adorable. Note how small the coffee maker is, barely bigger than its pot. The snug design was its selling point.
The Krups Duomat (1976) took the opposite approach. It doubled down on carafes, allowing you to make a pot of coffee and tea at the same time. If you’re wondering why orange is such a popular color in this space, the answer is twofold. Yes, the color was on trend. But, according to Gielens, oranges and reds also helped cover impurities in early plastics.
The Calor Expresso (1976) was an espresso maker that leaned into its roundness, down to a built-in, oversize tray that looks more like a place setting than an appliance. That unconventional yellow finish isn’t just eye-popping; it’s metal instead of plastic, like a solid KitchenAid mixer.
The Speed Pot by National (1977) wasn’t a coffee maker per se. It was a hot water dispenser, made for a single cup of instant coffee or tea—much like a Keurig works today. Gielens notes that its sleek top is pretty obviously borrowed from the Braun Aromaster KF20, and that in the ’70s and ’80s, these single and dual coffee cup makers were relatively common.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum lives this Ferrari-red, stainless-steel Model 377 by French designer Jean-Louis Barrault for Moulinex (1977). Note that the coffee filter is open to the air, so you’d watch the hot water drip down like a fountain. But its main breakthroughs were in that front control panel that replaced the basic on/off switch, complete with a timer and VFD display (a display used on VHS players and car stereos before LCDs took over). This whole design was shameless futurism.
A few years later, SEB released the Model 980 (1979). I cannot stop looking at its side profile and the translucence of the cylindrical water reservoir. But it’s most notable because it’s among the first coffee makers to let you pull the carafe out during the brew process without spilling.
The same year that the Model 980 came out, we got the Aroma Super Luxe by Krups. I did a double take that this came out in 1979, since its entire design language looks like something you might have seen in the mid-1980s or early ’90s. Also, R.I.P. color. It was nice knowing you.
A curveball in the collection is the Mr. Instant by Melitta (1981). With a faux-metal facade, a handle on top, and a large knob on the side, it almost reads as a piece of audio equipment. In fact, it made a variety of hot beverages, including coffee. “It shows what design can do with simple technical devices,” Gielens argues. “It pushes all the user experience buttons: by simulating high-quality materials, by looking like a miniature food factory, almost toylike, with the bold control panel with lights and switches, and the carrying handle for better mobility.”
We tie the metal and sharp edges seen in the Mr. Instant to ’80s design, but the company’s other line, Aroma Art (1984), celebrates a completely different aesthetic. It resembles a series of beakers, which Gielens suggests cued the customer to expect a scientifically perfect cup of coffee. But scope that red-and-white bobber that signals the system’s water level. This design has plenty of whimsy, too.
If there’s one quintessential coffee maker from the 1980s, it’s the Aromaster line from Braun. Aromasters integrated the carafe almost seamlessly into the coffee maker’s form. This model KF40 version (1984) pushes that idea to extremes by rendering the carafe in thermal plastic to match the machine. Gielens points out that this design had some obvious flaws: You can’t see coffee or water levels! (And I’d add that drinking coffee out of plastic is stomach-churning compared to glass.) Even so, what a gorgeous object. Build this thing in ceramic, and I’m sold.
Assuming that you, too, have fallen in love with vintage coffee makers, know that these objects are far from obsolete. Because the nature of drip coffee hasn’t changed in 100 years, they still work largely like any coffee maker you’d buy today . . . and maybe even better.
“These old drip coffee makers are still a great way to brew your cup today. They can be found for good prices and are superior in quality compared to what you can buy now,” Gielens says, advising shoppers to “Get one that is mint in a box. . . . [It] will easily last for 10 years—unless you break the jug.”
Soft Electronics is out this May in the U.S. for $60. Find it here.