My friend, the cartoonist Roy Doty, was interviewed for this terrific profile of inventor and bon vivant Peter Schlumbohm, creator of the Chemex coffee maker. It was written by Tejal Rao for Gourmet.
The Chemex coffee maker is part chemist’s funnel, part Erlenmeyer flask, with a blond leather band in the middle corseting its hourglass curves. An iconic symbol of German modernism and simple, functional Bauhaus style, the device–a Pyrex glass container with a sturdy paper filter–produced M.F.K. Fisher’s favorite cup of coffee and still holds an alluring power over coffee purists and design geeks. Its success launched its inventor, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, into the arms of the design establishment (the coffee maker has been a part of the MOMA’s design collection since 1944, just three years after Schlumbohm patented it), and in the early years of World War II, it was considered a patriotic alternative to products made from metals and plastics (which were essential to the war effort). A Time Magazine article from November 1946 quotes the ebullient inventor as saying, “with the Chemex, even a moron can make good coffee.”
“He loved to drink and he loved to eat,” says Roy Doty, a cartoonist who was a friend of the late inventor, “so going out for dinner with Dr. Schlumbohm was a horrifying experience.” Guests were treated to epic all-night food crawls in his huge Cadillac Coupe De Ville, which he pimped out with built-in shades and a solid-gold Chemex coffee maker bolted to the driver’s door. (When he traded in his car every two years, he removed the golden amulet and set it on the newer, larger model.) Like many German immigrants, Schlumbohm felt at home in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, once a stronghold of German restaurants and coffee shops. He drove his guests up into the 80s, handed anyone loitering near the area a ten-dollar bill to watch the car, and then marched in for his first course. Soon, they all piled back into the car and moved on to the next joint. “Eventually,” says Doty, “you’d be somewhere eating streusel with him and by that time it was two or three in the morning.” But three in the morning was nothing to Schlumbohm, who surrounded himself with fellow night owls and often made calls around that time to discuss his newest ideas.
When he did return home, it was, unsurprisingly, to a bachelor penthouse on 5th Avenue–a peeping Tom’s paradise overlooking Greenwich Village, with thousands of dollars worth of binoculars dangling from the windows, and ice buckets stocked with perpetually chilling German beers and wines at the front door for visitors. “He loved women, Dr. S., and women loved him,” says Doty.