A Coffeemaker Design Debate and Shopper’s Guide

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RF: The Krups was the only machine with any real visual refinement—for example, the gentle tapering of the glass carafe—and the only machine that didn’t seem overtly masculine. This strikes me as bizarre considering women must easily constitute half of the purchasers and users of these machines.

The penchant for stainless steel has become absurd, in that it’s there more to match the fancy fridge than to provide a scratch-resistant surface. The Krups’ large, unadorned, unsigned front was even more appealing in light of the busyness of some of the others, especially the “vintage styling” of several of the Cuisinart models, which meant using a toggle switch—rather than a start button—to begin the brewing process.

AL: Initially I also liked the KitchenAid KCM111OB, which has an oval footprint and a nicely integrated carafe and housing. It improves on the Cuisinart with its manually operated latch for the basket. It has a see-through water container that you can remove to clean. But in order to remove the water container to fill it up you have to pull the whole machine forward on the counter. This reveals how deep it really is—it looks so tidy because they have put all the junk in the trunk.

And even though it’s been tarted up with stainless steel, it is still mostly plastic. On the display model, the lid was not shutting completely, as if the hinge had already given up.

RF: It’s funny that venerable Mr. Coffee seems to be one of the best options, and not the deluxe but the cheaper CGX20. It is compact, the controls are simple and clear (although the white version has buttons in a slightly off-white shade that makes them look pre-stained, and they are “droopy” because of poor alignment).

So rather than attempting to “have it all,” as I did, in a machine that wedges grinder, brewer, and timer into one unit for $130, you can buy the Mr. Coffee, plus a thermal carafe that suits your style, and still have about $40 left over to buy a rather nice burr grinder like the Cuisinart DBM-8. I know you like the $60 Magnussen carafe by Stelton, but I think the spout leaks.

AL: None of these coffeemakers looks as nice as my Rowenta. To get simplicity, you have to go over to the pod coffeemakers, which cost three times as much, make a quarter of the coffee, and create daily packaging waste.

RF: As I am thoroughly pleased with my vintage Magnalite water kettle, I might just return to the first coffeemaker I ever purchased, a Chemex. But not without a separate thermal carafe as well!

AL: So what have we learned, if readers are inspired to upgrade their own coffee-making experience?

  • Get the shortest coffeemaker you can find. If you are short, this is doubly important.
  • Look for one with an exterior water-level indicator.
  • Know yourself: How picky are you about coffee? Do the beans need to be ground that day? Do you mind if your brew sits around cooking into sludge on a hot plate? Your preferences may raise the price tag, but overall, there is little reason to pay more than $100.
  • And last but not least: Don’t try to buy your next machine online. Coffeemakers may seem simple, but purchasing the wrong one is a good way to ruin every morning.

Russell Flinchum, Ph.D, is the archivist of the Century Association Archives foundation, an independent design historian and curator, and the author of two books: Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit and American Design.

Alexandra Lange is editor of the culture journalism site Let’s Get Critical and blogs weekly for Design Observer. She is coauthor of Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes. Her previous stories for Gourmet Live were an appreciation of thrifty-chic midcentury-modern cookware and “The Perfect Fork.”

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