“See how little it takes to make a man happy: a half cup of coffee...”. With these words, Eduardo De Filippo concluded his famous monologue in the second act of the Italian comedy film Ghosts, Italian Style. In this monologue he praised the priceless virtues of the “monk-coat-colored” drink that his character, Pasquale Lojacono, used to carefully prepare and sip on his balcony.
If the happiness that comes with a cup of coffee – more recently celebrated by Italian singer Fabrizio de André: “Ah, how great coffee is / even in prison they can make it well / with the recipe that Ciccirinella / a cellmate / was given by his mom” – is now within everyone’s reach, that is thanks to the intuition of Alfonso Bialetti. Ninety years ago, in 1933, in his workshop in Crusinallo, Italy, he invented an object that would make him and his company famous throughout the world: The Moka Express – the pressure stovetop coffee maker that allowed anyone to make a good old espresso at home.
The Moka pot is named after the city of Mocha in Yemen – one of the very first coffee production areas. Italian poet Giuseppe Parini recalls this in the verses of Il Mattino, when he celebrates the virtues of the “clear beverage” that comes from Aleppo “and distant Mocha too”. Instead, the idea for the design is said to have come to Bialetti while watching his wife do laundry with an old lisciveuse – a simple but effective ancestor of the washing machine that consisted of a pot in which water was boiled and then released through a pipe, mixed with lye and soap, onto the clothes to be washed.
This is where engineer Alfonso Bialetti drew inspiration to create his legendary coffee maker. In an octagonal aluminum pot – a material dear to the futurists at the time –, water heats up and rises until it meets the ground coffee deposited in the funnel-shaped filter, where it absorbs the aroma and color before settling in the other half of the pot.
A simple but brilliant idea. So brilliant, in fact, that the Moka quickly became one of the most popular Italian design objects in the world, with hundreds of millions sold from the 1950s to present. But the Moka, with its unique Art Deco design, also gained popularity thanks to a highly innovative advertising strategy conceived by the founder’s son, Renato, and carried out by cartoonist Paul Campani. In 1953, inspired by Renato Bialetti’s appearance, Campani created the iconic “little man with a moustache”. This character, who immediately won the public’s affection, first appeared in a series of cartoons with the slogan “Oh, yes, yes... it seems easy… to make good coffee!”, which soon became a catchphrase. Later, it was also featured on the side of the Moka, becoming an organic part of the object. It was one of the first examples of an entrepreneur directly participating in the promotion of one of his products, even if in an ironic and somewhat cartoonish way.
In 1958, he landed on Carosello, an Italian television advertising show. The little man with a mustache was voiced by Raffaele Pisu, and his mouth took the shape of the letters of the words he pronounced. Thus the phlegmatic man with a fedora-like hat became one of the hallmarks of the golden age of Italian advertising, along with Cavandoli’s La Linea for Lagostina and the Pagot brothers’ Calimero for Mira Lanza. They’re all proof that creativity can reach out to everyone and promote something that improves people’s lives.