Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

What's Wrong with Today's Coffeemakers? A Design Debate

Industrial design historian Russell Flinchum and design critic Alexandra Lange take on this essential, often aggravating appliance.

Is your coffeemaker a drip? Does poor design short-circuit the satisfaction of your morning java? Read on for some classic coffeemaker shortcomings and how to get the right results when upgrading your caffeine machine.

Russell Flinchum: My goal was a simple one: to have a cup of hot, freshly ground and brewed coffee awaiting me at a regular hour in the morning. I did what I felt was a thorough investigation before ordering my Cuisinart Grind & Brew with the thermal carafe. But my experience has taught me a few lessons.

The first is not to be cheap. I chose the less-expensive grinder with the whirring blades that approximate the sound of an air-raid siren once the coffee is ground.

I also learned to make sure locking mechanisms actually lock. The basket that holds the filter on my machine is mounted on a spring-loaded bracket. If the catch is not firmly in place, one in eight times the basket will partially eject, covering the counter with hot, partially brewed coffee and grounds.

Alexandra Lange: My goal was even simpler: I bought my coffeemaker, a Rowenta designed by British minimalist Jasper Morrison, based solely on looks. It was white, it was dead simple—just one button!—and it went with my newly remodeled kitchen.

RF: If I saw a coffeemaker with a single button, my question would be, how much do I have to do before I get to press that single button?

AL: What you give up is an automatic timer. And it isn’t the one button that is the problem. It is things like no water indicator on the outside of the machine. That was fine when I had a glass carafe, but it broke (as they always do), and I could only get a thermal replacement, which has no water-level markings. Now, to see if I have poured the right amount of water into the coffeemaker, I have to stand on my tippy toes and peer into the depths of the machine, which is difficult if you are short (like me) and park your machine at the back of the counter (like most people do).

Also, the plastic on the lid and handle of the carafe is gray, which I assumed they chose because white would stain. But even the gray stains! And I always tangle with the superminimal lid. You’re supposed to be able to turn it with one thumb so that you can pour a cup of coffee single-handed. But it takes a giant’s thumb, so I always have to find a place to set the carafe down so that I can open the lid with two hands—while not burning my countertop. If I turn it too far, the lid falls off, spilling coffee everywhere.

Which is why we went to survey the marketplace at a typical home superstore, hoping to find something better out there. We evaluated the ergonomics; unfortunately, retailers don’t let you test the most important thing—taste.

RF: It’s clear to me that this is not a “one size fits all” proposition. All the coffeemakers we looked at—12-cup automatic-drip machines—revealed that an industrial designer had been involved, but none seemed to have functionality as their priority. My guess is that most coffeemakers are purchased in a big-box store setting, where the machines have to function as their own salesperson. Which means they have to get by on looks and “affordances,” as they were once called.

All the models were ridiculously tall when the lid on top was opened; an average of 22 inches, which is a full 4 inches greater than the standard distance between counters and upper cabinets. Several of the more appealing models had a small footprint but could only be used by turning the coffeemaker sideways, meaning you would need double the footprint to access the coffee basket.

AL: Pulling out the machine every morning would really bother me. What I like about mine is that it just sits there quietly on the counter, ready and waiting. All the machines now are so boss, for lack of a better word: rounded and bulging and black.

My favorite on looks alone was the Krups KM4065. It was the shortest and among the slimmest, but most important, it uses gray rather than black plastic with the stainless steel, which makes the whole thing recede visually. It has nice big buttons angled upward toward the user. But still, the thermal version had no outside water-level indicator, it was too tall with the lid up, and the coffee basket was really hard to remove for cleaning.

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.
Originally published in Gourmet