Visiting the Passione Italiana Exhibit at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA)

On view now through June 15, 2019 at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) is the Passione Italiana: The Art of Espresso exhibition. This spectacular exhibit showcases espresso makers used in Italy during the mid-twentieth century—alongside inventive coffee sets—and the designers/inventors associated with them. Overall, the exhibition showcases more than 50 pieces that date from the mid-20th century through present day.

This exhibit should appeal to design fans and coffee enthusiasts alike. In addition to featuring the beautiful espresso machines on display (see images below), the exhibition also provides a perspective on how coffee and coffee shops have had social and historical impact around the world, including the role of cafés as incubators in social justice movements and how they have helped fuel literary movements, musical achievements, and even political revolutions.

I had the chance to visit this exhibition last month, and photos from my visit are below. This blog post is organized by some of the major espresso machines and other items on display. At the bottom of this post, you can read a Q&A with Laura Flusche, Executive Director of MODA.

Exterior view of the Passione Italiana exhibit at Museum of Design Atlanta.

Interior sign of the Passione Italiana: The Art of Espresso display.

Another view of the Passione Italiana exhibition at MODA.

During my visit, I had the privilege of being guided around the exhibition by Laura Flusche, Executive Director of MODA. I captured the photos seen below after my tour.

Taking in the scene at the Passione Italiana exhibition.

The Gaggia Milano

On September 5, 1938, Achille Gaggia applied for a patent (patent number 365726 called “Lampo”) for the first modern steamless coffee machine. The disruptive mechanism described in the patent was for the use of hot water pressure instead of steam to prepare an espresso characterized by a soft layer of "crema naturale". For many in the espresso community, this first patent from Gaggia marks the beginning of the modern era of espresso.

Subsequently, in 1947, Achille Gaggia filed a second patent calling for a lever-operated piston machine incorporating a spring. This spring provided additional pressure, and this pressure forced water through the coffee in a shorter time, producing a short black espresso in just 15 seconds. The idea for the piston mechanism came to Gaggia after he observed the engine of an American army jeep which used a hydraulic system. This patent was the revolution of the espresso machine! (This is where some others claim is the true beginning of the modern era of espresso.)

By 1947, the Gaggia company was founded with a formal incorporation happening a year later. The Classic was the first Gaggia espresso machine produced using the design from the latest patent.

Because of his invention, Achille Gaggia earned an honorary title as the “Father of the Modern Espresso Machine.” In the decades following his groundbreaking patent, Gaggia has been at the forefront of the Italian espresso scene. It is safe to say that the coffee world would not be the same afterwards. For true history buffs, an amazing history of the Gaggia company may be found here.

On view at MODA’s Passione Italiana exhibit is the 1952 Gaggia Milano espresso machine.

Another view of the 1952 Gaggia Milano espresso machine on display at MODA’s Passione Italiana exhibition.

La Diamante, or The Diamond

In 1956, Gio Ponti, chief editor of the Italian design and architectural magazine Domus, announced an international design competition for an espresso machine. Domus selected the design by Bruno Munari and Enzo Mari. The design, featuring multi-colored modular plates or faces, was influenced by the architecture of Gio Ponti. At the time of the announcement of their victory, both Bruno Munari and Enzo Mari were still young and essentially unknown. Exposure in Domus catapulted Munari and Mari to instant fame. Bruno Munari and Enzo Mari nicknamed their espresso machine the "The Diamond" (“La Diamante” in Italian) for the multi-faceted shape of the elements which could be composed to obtain different combinations of colors and sizes. 

La Diamante was sold by the company La Pavoni under the name of Modello Concorso until the early 1960s. What’s interesting is that after a hiatus of about 50 years, La Pavoni released a contemporary interpretation of “The Diamond.” You can browse La Pavoni’s current collection of “The Diamond” here.

The Faema E61

With its pure steel body, the Faema E61 is the first espresso machine to use a volumetric pump to give the water the ideal 9-atmosphere pressure and keep the pressure constant during the whole extraction process, unlike the previously available lever espresso machines. Ernesto Valente invented what’s known as the E61 group; it is called that because it first appeared on the Faema E61 espresso machine. Curiously, the name E61 signifies the total solar eclipse that occurred in 1961, the year of its invention. E61 is now a common standard for commercial espresso machines worldwide.

The Faema E61 on display at MODA’s Passione Italiana: The Art of Espresso exhibition.

The Mirage Triplette by Kees van der Westen 

The Dutch Kees van der Westen machines have a worldwide reputation for their extreme performance, accuracy, and beautiful sleek designs. Featuring the E61 group head, the Mirage combines this with a 9 bar rotary water pump. The coffee magazine Sprudge profiled the designer of these espresso machines in this piece from 2016:

In the US, the allure of the cult-status machines—with suitably mystical-sounding names, such as Mirage and Spirit—boomerangs back to their maker, a faraway industrial-design genius with a reported penchant for driving a 1962 Cadillac and a preference not to be photographed. But to the Dutch he is just “Kees from Brabant,” a friendly businessman from the Netherlands province of North Brabant who will likely visit a coffee bar if it bears one of his handcrafted creations or will just as well receive a local wanting a look-see at his headquarters.

Officially known as Kees van der Westen Espressonistic Works, his workshop and warehouse are contained in side-by-side industrial units in the small town of Waalre, a 10-minute drive from Eindhoven’s rail station. Vintage Faema pieces and framed archival photos add character to the place. The staff, 25 in total, whistle while they work. But the interior is otherwise nondescript. There is no doubt that the machines are what matter most here, that all creativity and concentration are devoted to perfecting the process of making espresso. Van der Westen said this much in reply to 20 questions inquiring about his career history, the coffee he drinks nowadays, and a completely new machine currently in his head but which he soon expects to be at his, and, eventually, the world’s fingertips.

Read more in that interview to find out about the various customizations that the company offers. The Kees van der Westen website also features a fascinating history of the design of its espresso machines since 1984.

On display at MODA’s Passione Italiana exhibition is the Triplette edition from the Mirage line of Kees van der Westen espresso machines.

The Mirage Triplette by Kees van der Westen on display at MODA’s Passione Italiana exhibit.

Detail from the Mirage Triplette by Kees van der Westen on display at MODA.

The Bialetti Moka

In addition to the espresso machines, the Passione Italiana exhibition features various other coffee-related items on display, such as the famed Italian coffee pots. One of these objects is the Bialetti Moka.

Note: I did not capture the famed Italian object called the Bialetti Moka below, so I am embedding the photo and caption from MODA’s Instagram account:

From the early 1950s to the present day, Bialetti has manufactured over 200 million coffee makers. If you want to learn more about the Bialetti Moka, check out this post.

The Oggetto Banale Coffee Maker

Designed by Alessandro Mendini, the object below is a playful variation on the Bialetti Moka (seen above). Mendini played an important role in Italian avant-garde design of the 1970s and 1980s. From Wikipedia:

Mendini’s work in product design was influential in the sense that it pushed the boundaries of what products could be. A notable example is his Lassú chair from 1974, a chair built on top of a pyramid structure, which forgoes conventional notions of function. Mendini was addressing the domestic object as a conduit for spirituality, an idea reinforced by his ritualised burning of the chair, photographed for placement on the cover of Casabella in 1975.

Mendini organized the Oggetto Banale (Banal Object) exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 1980 and included this espresso maker as an entry.

The AnZa

This espresso machine, nicknamed the “concrete block,” is a nod to Brutalist architecture. The machine, called the AnZa, came together as a collaboration between the design firm Montaag and the espresso machine repair company Kanen, who share the same space in Berkeley, CA. It was born out of passion for good coffee and boredom with the default espresso machine vernacular.⁣

The AnZa introduces new materials to the design of the espresso machine. The model on view at MODA is made of concrete, wood, steel, brass, and glass.

The designers raised over $145,000 on Kickstarter to put the machine into production.⁣ You can watch the Kickstarter video here.

The AnZa, on display at MODA’s Passione Italiana exhibition.

Another view of the AnZa, on display at Passione Italiana exhibition.

The Victoria Arduino Venus Century

One of the highlights of MODA’s Passione Italiana exhibition is the limited edition espresso machine by Victoria Arduino. In celebration of their 100th anniversary, the company made 100 of these machines (called the Venus Century) and had them blessed by the pope. Machine number 000 was donated to Pope Benedict XVI, who had declared his passion for espresso.

The particular machine seen below was lent to the exhibition by Espresso Southeast out of Auburn, GA. 

The Victoria Arduino Venus Century is perhaps the centerpiece of the exhibition at MODA’s Passione Italiana.

The Co.Lab at MODA

From the press release that accompanied the opening of the Passione Italiana: The Art of Espresso exhibition:

With Passione Italiana, MODA introduces the Co.Lab,  an experiential space within a gallery that’s inspired by the spirit of creativity fueled by coffee. The immersive environment is developed by MODA with some of Atlanta’s most creative entities to offer a center for making, thinking,  talking, and  learning, and will feature expansive communal tables within an inviting shared space. 

Visitors to Co.Lab will be invited to participate in What is Your Story, a crowd-sourced storytelling installation organized by design firms Orange Sparkle Ball and non-profit sister, Spark Corps, in collaboration with BooknBrunch that provides a touching look at how untold stories, struggles, and secrets can forge connections. The hands-on project will invite guests to anonymously inscribe their story in a used book on view at  MODA and give visitors the opportunity to respond to these stories by sending a supportive message via postcard.  

This is one of the coolest aspects of this exhibition, and I captured a few photos below from guests who participated in What Is Your Story.

MODA’s partnership with Co.Lab.

“I had to grow up too fast.”

A display at Co.Lab’s What Is Your Story installation.

A wider view of books that have been annotated/marked by visitors at Co.Lab’s What Is Your Story installation. You can respond to the questions/prompts by sending a postcard to the author of the story/question/prompt.

Q&A with Laura Flusche, Executive Director of MODA

I reached out to Laura Flusche, Executive Director at MODA with some additional questions about the Passione Italiana exhibition. This Q&A is presented below.

Q: What was the process like for putting this exhibit together? Was it something in the works for a long time?
LF
: We planned this exhibition for about a year. It's a traveling exhibition that originated at the Cube Design Museum in Holland and was curated by an Italian design curator named Elisabetta Pisu who is with the IMF Foundation. We asked the curator if we could adapt the exhibition so that it better reflected MODA's idea of design as a creative process that inspires change, transforms lives, and makes the world a better place. So, we added some machines like the Victoria Arduino Century (the big machine in the back gallery) that we were able to source locally. And we did some research on the ways that coffee has fueled creativity and change across history and included that information. Because we prioritize active participation over passive observation in our exhibitions, we collaborated with Orange Sparkle Ball and Spark Corps to develop the Co-Lab which provides a coffee shop-esque environment and in which visitors are invited to participate in the What's Your Story project.

As it appears at MODA, the exhibition was designed by Susan Sanders, who wanted to create an immersive environment that would provide visitors with an experience akin to being in an elegant coffee shop.

Q: What's been the response/engagement like for the Co.Lab "What is Your Story"? Have you mailed a lot of postcards?
LF:
Lots! I don't know the number as Orange Sparkle Ball is tracking that, but I'm sure it's in the hundreds. And even more stories have been written in books. Visitors generate somewhere between 40 and 70 of those each week. 

Q: Do you have a favorite piece or installation in the current exhibit?
LF:
Several! I really like the Victoria Arduino Century machine, both for its size and glamour, but also for the fact that we found it right here in Georgia. I'm also a big fan of the Alessi Tea and Coffee Tower projects — especially the ones designed by Massimiliano Fuksas & Doriana Mandrelli and by Dominique Perrault. They're so elegant.

Q: What's been the most surprising aspect of the exhibit to you and, based on your views, to the people that visit this exhibition?
LF:
I think it's the design and technology story that explains how espresso (as we define it today) came into being. Before I started working on this exhibition, I never thought much about the origins of espresso, why it came into being and how design and technological developments over time enabled us to make it. 

Q: Is there anything else that you want to share about Passione Italiana with an audience of coffee enthusiasts?
LF:
Even if you don't like coffee, you'll like this exhibition, as the machines are beautifully designed! 

[Editor’s note: if you aren’t familiar with MODA and its current location in Midtown Atlanta directly across The High Museum of Art, I recommend reading this blog post from Laura Flusche.]

There is a lot to discover at MODA’s Passione Italiana exhibition.

If You Go

Passione Italiana: The Art of Espresso runs at MODA (address: 1315 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta, GA 30309; Google Map here) through June 15, 2019. Pro tip: sign up to go on one of the guided tours of the Passione Italiana exhibition (current dates: April 28; May 5; May 9; May 16; May 19).

MODA does not have designated parking, but offers a 20% discounted museum admission for patrons who walk, bike, or use public transportation (MARTA) to get here. MODA is located about a five minute walk away from the Arts Center MARTA station.

You can check the MODA’s opening hours here.

Final verdict: I highly recommend visiting this exhibition if you have any interest at all in design and/or the world of coffee. You’re guaranteed to learn something new and see something beautiful.