My grandfather Alfonso Bialetti


8 September 2011

Earlier this year Alessi launched the Alessi Moka by Italian design maestro Alessandro Mendini. It's a homage to Alberto Alessi's grandfather Alfonso Bialetti, the inventor of the now iconic Bialetti Moka Express. Here Alessi writes about his grandfather's lack of interest in commercial success and fame and yet 200 million Biallettis have sold worldwide.

Octagonal in shape, inspired by Futurism and Art Deco and produced in die cast aluminium, the Bialetti Moka Express or Moka from 1933 is an archetype of both its time and its type. It earned my grandfather Alfonso Bialetti eternal fame as a designer, even though he probably wasn't looking for it.

I have often asked myself the reasons why this small household object became such a phenomenal example of 'Made in Italy'. Recently it's even been bestowed the status of proto-Italian design. The fact is that the Moka is now inscribed in the collective memory of the Italian people. It formalised the then novel ritual of making coffee at home (until then an espresso was often the preserve of café culture), making the process intimate and familiar. With the reassuring rumble of the coffee being produced over a gas flame, it has established a connection with the public's imagination that will continue to be repeated every morning regardless of the fashions currently prevailing on the market for electric, single-serving coffee machines with their packets and capsules.

My memories of my grandfather, the inventor Alfonso Bialetti, date back to the 1960s. He looked older than he really was, slightly bent with age and rather grumpy. I think that he wasn't very happy about being "ousted" from his own company – his son Renato came back from detention in Germany after the Second World War and had a very different personality to my grandfather. It was in fact Renato who was able to launch the Moka as a mass-produced object in the 1950s and build on its success thanks to his business instincts. Up until then the Moka had been a handcrafted product, made only in relatively few pieces. Advertising played a fundamental role in the success of Moka. Renato invested a lot in it and at exactly the right moment, during the economic boom of the 1950s. He was one of the first to use TV commercials to market a product in Italy, showing the Moka to literally everyone.

My grandfather was a dreamer, one of those genial craftsmen who are not so rare in Italian history. He was more interested in producing well-designed and well-manufactured products than in business. This is the reason why he did not get along very well with his son Renato, who was the exact opposite. We have been told that, before the invention of the Moka, my grandfather dedicated himself to the creation of a popular motorbike; a venture that failed early on.

My grandmother Ada, Alfonso's wife, used to say that during the period when he conceived the Moka in the early 1930s, Alfonso used to fall asleep in his armchair in the evening with the prototype of his coffee maker in one hand (evidently he was very proud of it and used to examine it from every point of view in order to understand if it could have been made still better) and a Tuscan cigar in the other hand. She frequently had to take the cigar away from him to prevent a fire.

He wasn't and didn't think of himself as a designer in the current sense of the word. We never spoke of this together: I was too young and he was too old and tired. Maybe a common point I share with him is the inclination to dream and to write poetry, in fact he used to often recite poems. We also share a passion for well made products, but this is a characteristic that I have inherited also from my paternal grandfather Alessi.

I'm neither an inventor nor a designer: I am an entrepreneur-design manager. I tend to see my activity as a constant homage to who preceded me and several times I have been thinking of making a homage to my grandfather and his coffee maker. Alessi has produced several coffee makers, but this is the first true attempt to re-design the Moka making explicit reference to the archetype represented by my grandfather's piece. The choice of Alessandro Mendini came to me very spontaneously. Since Mendini has worked with me for more than 30 years, we have great complicity and mutual feelings and for this reason he deeply understands my intuition. He was trying to put himself in my grandfather's shoes and re-interpret the ingenious invention with today's awareness of the levers effecting contemporary design.