Basic Instincts

Both ends of the design spectrum are powered by laziness. And coffee!

Salesmendon'tliketoadmitit,butproduct design plays to our vices, not our virtues. Laziness, for instance: How else to explain remotes, power seats and windows, and those clap switches for lights? The same is true, ironically, at the other end of the food chain, the swap meet, which is where products go when planned obsolescence kicks in and something new is introduced—but before they break. This is why you get the best bargains after noon. The sun bakes sellers' minds into something resembling Coquilles St. Jacques, and they'll do anything to move outdated junk.

Sometimes, one end of the product spectrum serendipitously bangs into the other in some weird sort of synergy or synchronicity or something—and you get a great deal on something really cool at the swap meet: it still works, it's an antique, and it teaches you something about how they did things way back when. Making coffee, for instance.

I drink one cup a day, but I love old gadgets. And old movies, in which someone's always either making coffee or smoking a cigarette (often simultaneously). Which is why my wife and I now have four old coffeemakers collected from swap meets and antique malls.

The first was a Farberware percolator that I remembered from a design book and my old bosses were throwing out. The second resembles a chemist's flask. It's thin glass—an inert material that won't absorb all that coffeeness—with a wooden handle, and it works by gravity. Just pour water. It's in the same design book, but we haven't used it because we can't find filters.

The two pieces de resistance, however, are the two-part glass coffeemakers we got into after watching Katharine Hepburn ruin one making coffee for Spencer Tracy in WomanoftheYear.Our first is a Silex just like Kate's: twin glass globes, the top one with a tube bottom that sticks down into the bottom one. Water goes in the bottom, coffee in the top—each separated by a thin glass rod that sits in the tube. It's very phallic. Put it on the stove, boil the water, and the water climbs up inside that glass tube, pushing the rod up the tube with its force and mingling with the coffee grounds. Take it off the fire, the water cools and drips back down the tube past the rod, which is knurled to let the tiniest drops of water through—but no coffee grounds. They stay in the top. Disconnect the glass globes, and you've got coffee.

In a half an hour: that's how long it takes the coffee to drip back down; taking the glass globes apart to get at the coffee—breaking that vintage rubber seal while it's all still red-hot—is near impossible. Other than that, it works great.

So I found a similar but updated model made by General Electric (remember them?) at a swap meet recently. It was probably done sometime after World War II: its handles are Bakelite—that heavy, brown, plastic-like stuff they used before plastic—and they're streamlined, making it resemble something from the Batmancartoons of 12 years ago. Graphics are done in silver and red, with great vintage typefaces. It even comes with a warmer that looks like a rocket pad, with speed lines on the handles and a chrome bezel.

The big news, though, is inside the pot. I can picture the GE people running out and paying good money for an earlier 1930s-era Silex like mine, then knocking it off and actually improving it. For the lazy people. Because speed and style are what sell. My wife and I are the only ones who'd buy a coffeemaker—or four—because Kate Hepburn ruined one.

The Silex is two vacant, artistic glass globes with only a faint "Pyrex" trademark to focus your attention. The GE has all kinds of jazziness all over it. And making coffee in it only takes about 10 minutes. Why? GE must have figured out that the reason the Silex is so slow is because there's no vent. Think about it. The reason your sinks, toilets and bathtubs drain isn't because there's a drain. It's because there's a vent letting in air to displace all that liquid. Buy a soda, open the can, and turn it upside down. See how fast it drains at first—before there's air inside the can—and you'll see what I mean.

All the people at GE did was punch a little hole into the glass tube—and presto! When it boils, the water leaps up the tube with a giant sucking sound. It mixes with the coffee, and when it starts coming back down, it streams out that little hole in the tube, leaving the big hole at the bottom for a vent. And you've got coffee.

With all this Rube Goldbergiana, the GE is much, much cooler to watch than my Farberware percolator, which is stainless steel and hides all the action inside. They'd still be making it today, of course, but the percolator was quicker. Which is why you can find physics-powered GE coffeemakers for less than $20 at the Cypress College swap meet. If you go around noon. I'd get there earlier myself, but I sleep late, and making coffee takes forever on the weekends.

 
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