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Oct 17, 2017

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Atomic: The Only Way to Fly
by Staff
Magazine Issue: AUS/NZ Issue Three

A while ago I found a fifties vintage industrial design annual in a musty second-hand bookstore. On the first double page spread was a blurb about anything American being the pinnacle of form, function and fabulousness.

To illustrate the anonymous author's point, there was a picture of a standard plug-in coffee percolator facing one of an Italian Atomic stovetop espresso machine. The latter was described as bulbous and ugly, and patently unable to produce good coffee.

If the Brevetti Robbiati company of Milano Italy, makers of the legendary Atomic, were perturbed by such slander, they undoubtedly kept their cool. Milano v Poughkeepsie anyone? Hmm, thought not.

As breathtaking in form as a Gaudi place of worship, or any Henry Moore nude, and functioning like your own right hand, the Atomic has for decades sat proudly atop an alloy mountain of pretenders.

With a little practice, you can turn out a cafe latte on your home Atomic that will often surpass the product of even your favourite barista. You might be saying at this point, hmm, big call, but if you've got an Atomic already, you'll certainly know what I mean.

Besides making a great home espresso, the curvy little Atomic enjoys icon status because of its apparent rarity. Manufactured since the early forties, to basically the same design, production abruptly stopped in the late eighties.

Rumour has it that the Italian factory was razed in a tragic fire. Other stories say it could have been an insurance rort. But the truth is closer to the fact that devotees were thin on the ground and the old Brevetti factory was forced to close its doors due to dwindling demand.

The myth was already rolling though, and like dying as a career move for a struggling artist, the price of a mint condition Atomic went through the roof.

A little stall at IT Design, in Melbourne's Greville Street, had lovingly-restored Atomics at around $400 - $550. In Sydney one of the all-time junk-store finds was to come across an Atomic in any state of repair. C-20 design and furniture shops around the country knew their value too.

From early polished alloy versions, with no steam arm, to classic seventies examples in burnt orange enamel, Atomics were a very hot item. Spares became a problem as the sole importer of the machine, Bon Trading, of Woollahra in Sydney, sold out of their dwindling supply.

Cafe aficionados had them on covetous display in cafes, and those privateers who treated theirs with utmost respect were still cranking out brilliant coffees at home. Neither could ever be persuaded to part with what was possibly the most important tool in their kitchens.

But just as the unscrupulous were planning raids on the unsuspecting, the Atomic phoenix rose again on a miracle wind.

For the last couple of years, a trickle of new Atomics has been arriving on our shores from a re-born Italian home. Bon Trading sells all they can get for a reasonable $380, but demand still outstrips supply.

At time of writing, the importer has no stock. And finding out, from the sweet but guarded ladies who run the family business, when the next shipment will dock, is like trying to get a decent double machiato at Starbucks.

But when asked why they are so popular, they will say this; "It's something I've thought a lot about but it's very hard to answer. There's all different reasons - the design, they're sturdy, some like the coffee," explains Rita from Bon Trading. "But I think it's much more than that. It's an old design and I think people come to regard it as their friend. It's always there for them, especially when there are some people who drink coffee for comfort."

One of the more deeply etched mistakes I have made on life's giddy trip was to sell off my faithful Atomic. I had fared badly at the baccarat table, and, in a moment of financial desperation, I allowed a creditor to seize my trusty machine.

Thankfully I had a serviceable spare, but the fright I got just isn't worth repeating. Now, if it ever comes down to the clink of chips on beige, or a textbook Atomic cafe latte, I'll take the coffee any time.

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