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Coffee Histories & Mysteries: How Did the Chemex End Up at MoMA?

How the simple brewer became an icon.

by Ashley Rodriguez | November 11, 2021

Question: The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City is one of the most-visited museums in the world. The museum, which collects modern and contemporary art, houses over 150,000 individual pieces including Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, and Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.

MoMA is home to a number of culturally significant items like housewares and furniture. Included in this collection is the Chemex, a coffee brewer made of borosilicate glass, wood, and leather that was a common household brewer in the ‘50s and ‘60s and made a resurgence in the ‘00s.

So how did the Chemex end up as part of the collection of one of the most famous modern history museums? Let’s find out!

Background information

The Chemex was invented in 1941 by Peter Schlumbohm, a chemist who came to the United States from Germany in 1936. Schlumbohm patented over 300 inventions and took a practical approach to everything he designed. MoMA quotes him as saying: “A table must be a table; a chair must be a chair; a bed must be a bed. When, in 1938, the personal desire for coffee came up, my aspect simply was: A coffeemaker must make coffee, and then I applied my knowledge of physics and chemistry.”

Schlumbohm was not only driven to design a perfect coffee brewer, but one that was aesthetically pleasing. As a chemist, he was inspired by glass labware, in particular the Erlenmeyer flask which has a conical body and a narrow cylindrical top.

He also used his training as a scientist to understand and manipulate extraction. According to the Chemex website, “Dr. Schlumbohm identified all of the components that ground coffee contains, and declared that there were only two desirable elements that one should have in their cup after the brewing process: aromatic coffee oils and caffeine.”

A little bit on the Chemex

The Chemex is a pour over brewer that’s distinctly built for ideal coffee extraction, simplicity, and beauty. Resembling an hourglass, its design allows for an exceptionally clean cup of coffee that is well-extracted. Compared to flat-bottomed brewers, the Chemex increases surface area and contact time between water and coffee grounds.

Part of the magic of a Chemex is its filter, which Schlumbohm designed along with the brewer itself. The Chemex filter is thicker than most other coffee filters, which slows down the rate in which water moves through the grounds and keeps out a higher percentage of oils and insoluble components. Schlumbohm added other design elements that might be easy to miss, like the pour spout, which acts as an air gap to allow displaced air to escape during brewing, and a small knob on the body of the brewer, which acts as a visual marker to note that half of the brewer is full.

The long answer

In 1942, a year after Schlumbohm first patented the Chemex, he gave a model to the buyer at Macy’s, and they began running ads for the brewer. Early ads promoted the Chemex as allowing users to “Make Coffee The ‘Can’t Miss’ Chemists Way” and the first 500 models were made in the same year.

Schlumbohm continued inventing and patenting new products, and submitted the Chemex to MoMA to be part of their Useful Objects show — the Chemex was not the only one of his designs he submitted, and it’s just one of 23 objects that are currently in the permanent collection of the museum.

It’s notable that the Chemex gained such notoriety during this time — the United States was in the midst of World War II and many manufacturers had to pivot their business to make items useful for war. However, the Chemex Corporation continued on, and the brewer became a fixture in homes during the late '40s and ‘50. That’s evidenced by the fact that the brewer shows up in a number of books, movies, television shows during that time, including the James Bond books and the movie Rosemary’s Baby.

Schlumbohm kept inventing, including quirky objects like the Chemobile (a prototype of a car that looks vaguely like a camper with rounded sides). He died in 1962 at the age of 66, and the company was bought by the Grassy family in 1980, who still own and operate the business today.

The short answer

Schlumbohm seemed to know he had invented an amazing product, and made smart moves to get the Chemex into the right hands. Giving a model to the Macy’s buyer was an astute move since it exposed the brewer to a widespread audience, and the curators at MoMA recognized the brewer for its balance of style and functionality. It’s still Schlumbohm’s best-known and best-loved invention out of his catalog.

The Chemex website is a treasure trove of information, including a very detailed timeline of the history of the Chemex complete with archival photos, so if you want to learn more please visit their website.