This instalment of Designing The Definitive looks at the humble French Press, variously known as the cafetière, press pot, coffee press, or just the coffee plunger. It’s not really important what we call it – for most people in the Western World it’s an instantly recognisable object. It's one of those designs that is so straightforward, how it looks tells us how it functions. Add coffee, hot water, a few minutes – then press. Voila. A decent cup of coffee.
There is, in fact, no need to indulge in any French affectations here; no detours, no déjà vu and definitely no avant-garde. The reason being that the French Press is not even French; it seems that it was actually first designed in 1933 by an Italian called Attilio Calimani. If the truth be told, for all the different resources available about the French Press, there seems to be no single authority on the truth of its provenance. There are in fact many contradictions in the story of its creation, which is not the first time in this series that I have found this to be the case. When dealing with iconic designs, the truth can sometimes seem flexible. What would be fair to say is that the French Press underwent a number of design changes, developments and different manufacturers before the version featured here, the Bodum Chambord, appeared. It's what Bodum call on their website “the classic French Press coffee maker designed in the fifties”. Suitably vague, but what does seems certain is that this type of coffee maker, under various guises, became very popular in France from the 1950s onwards, and Bodum, a Danish company, acquired the rights to manufacture it when they bought Martin S.A., in 1991.
So, instead of focusing on a rather murky product provenance, let’s focus on function and aesthetics. The French Press works in such a simple way that it requires no explanation, it's an intuitive design to use, which in the world of complicated coffee making, has proved enduring. According to coffee connoisseurs, it makes one of the best tasting cups of coffee. It also does a very proficient job of being one of the least wasteful coffee makers, which has added resonance now. In a recent discussion with the Milan based British designer George Sowden, he stressed to me the importance of designers focusing on daily rituals if they want to make a positive environmental impact on the world. In his case, he designed a coffee pot that uses a tiny metal micro-filter with such small holes that there is no need for a supplementary paper filter, or for aluminium coffee capsules. He notes on his website that there are around 400 billion cups of coffee consumed annually, so the amount of waste in terms of paper filters and packaging is simply enormous. Here the French Press has little to answer for, it keeps waste to a minimum.
Aesthetically, the Chambord has a mid-century look, with a pleasing blend of chrome-plated steel, glass and matt black polypropylene. Bodum does refer to the fact that they chrome-plate in an “environmentally correct” way, as it’s a process that uses very toxic substances and is now strictly regulated in industrial use. The chrome-plated frame in the Chambord has beautifully curved sections for the feet, while the screwed-on handle is generous in size and created to stay cool to touch. The other detail about the design that makes it so durable is that every piece can be taken apart with great ease, so cleaning and maintaining one is very simple. The Chambord French Press is classic design through its resolute simplicity, understated styling, and ease of use. As with most daily rituals, trends tend to come and go, but pure uncomplicated ways of doing things remain.