A Brief History of Dr. Chemex

Mar 07, 2017

We are huge fans of the Chemex around Stumptown. We love its clean cup quality that maintains body and balanced floral notes and its classic design that hasn’t changed much since its invention in 1941. It sits in the MOMA and Smithsonian permanent design collections, and for most us that work here, on our kitchen counters, too.

While the Chemex is ubiquitous in specialty coffee shops today and in the basements of our grandparents, many people don’t know much about its ebullient and idiosyncratic creator, the German chemist and inventor Dr. Peter Schlumbohm.

Schlumbohm’s trademark Chemex hourglass form with its wood and leather collar was seen as an elegant and simple way to make coffee. (In a questionable marketing tag, Schlumbohm was quoted in a 1946 Time magazine article as saying “with the Chemex, even a moron can make good coffee.”) Stylistically, it was a cross between German modernism and Bauhaus style. In the era of its invention, this coffeemaker, without the use of metal or plastic parts was seen as patriotic, too.

Schlumbohm was born in Germany, got his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Berlin and moved to New York in 1936. Along with the Chemex, Dr. Schlumbohm patented over 300 other devices, some of which he called “Beautilities.”

Schlumbohm was larger than life – at over 6 feet tall and 300 pounds, he was a great presence. “He loved to drink and he loved to eat,” says Roy Doty, a cartoonist who was a friend and frequent collaborator, “so going out for dinner with Dr. Schlumbohm was a horrifying experience.”

He drove the streets of Manhattan in his Cadillac with a golden Chemex-shaped hood ornament and would eat and drink at all hours of the night. Many of his inventions were related to refrigeration, and a large number of them happened to further his drinking pastime. A disposable Instant Ice container chilled Champagne on the go. Schlumbohm’s cocktail shaker made of aluminum, wood and cork was efficient and good looking. And the Tubadipdrip was primarily a coffee and tea maker, but it, too, doubled as a cocktail mixer. (See more of the Schlumbohm’s MOMA collection here.)

He’d stay out all night and take friends up for a nightcap in his stylish penthouse bachelor pad on 5th Avenue overlooking Greenwich Village, with binoculars dangling for spying on the streets below. The next day he’d sleep in, sketch ideas in his kitchen, stroll into the office (staffed by only women) in the afternoon, and repeat the process.

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In a LIFE magazine piece from 1949, Herbert Brean describes Schlumbohm’s formula for a successful new invention: 20% was recognizing a problem that needed solving, 40% was coming up with a patentable solution, 30% was good design, and 10% was merchandising. Brean wrote of Schlumbohm, “He is the kind who perceives a problem and logically sets about finding a solution that will be efficient, handsome and profitable. Dr. Schlumbohm does all his own selling, writes his own advertisements, direction leaflets and brochures and even types his own patent applications—one draft only, since he refuses to make a mistake.”

In a particularly contemporary sentiment, Schlumbohm wrote in a company newsletter in 1956 that young people should “ignore the lure of a big company’s payroll with its nerve-killing conformism, to go out on their own, to be their own boss, to apply their knowledge to creating Beautilities instead of gorilla-guided missiles.”

In a eulogy for Schlumbohm shortly after his death in 1962, the design author Ralph Caplan described the typical Schlumbohm invention as “a synthesis of logic and madness”. He described the Chemex as “one of the few modern designs for which one can feel affection as well as admiration.”

We’ll drink to that.