Q&A with Alberto Alessi 22.01.09

words Johanna Agerman

Alessi recently released a series of DVDs of interviews with some of Italian design's biggest names, how come?

For years, Alessi has had a little museum that records the contributions made by our designers, and to add to this collection of products and prototypes the museum's curator, Francesca Appiani, made interviews with some of the designers. We wanted to make these available to the public.

How did you choose designers?

These people were chosen because they're probably the most important talents working with Alessi, in terms of having shaped Alessi as it is today. So starting with Ettore Sottsass who was the first, in 1970, and then Sapper, and Achille Castiglioni and Alessandro Mendini, they all were, still are in fact, very important players in the Alessi game.

In what way are they still important?

Well usually a product lasts for a very long time, but we are also developing other new products with them, for example Alessandro Mendini is still one of the most active. But Richard Sapper has always been, since the beginning, very lazy, but we are still working on two projects with Richard.

Is it laziness or just his creative process?

I'm only joking, it's just a different rhythm.

How do you like to work yourself? How many projects do you work on at the same time?

Well that is a bit difficult to explain, because we present, every year, two collections. One during the spring, the second in autumn. All in all, there are 50 to 60 projects per year, but a project is difficult to explain because if a designer comes with a project of an ashtray, we call it a project, but also a complete collection of table ware, made up of glasses, porcelain and cutlery, is a project. At the moment I'm managing about 140 projects.

In the Alessi interview Sottsass talks about the fact that designers often design only for industry, without thinking of theory or philosophy, when in fact this is the most important aspect of design. Do you agree with him?

This is my guiding principle. I hope to be able to continue like that, it is very important for me, it is also the reason for the success of the design through Alessi's history.

But how do you manage it? How do you find that balance of keeping true to your philosophy at the same time as supporting a company?

This is one of the secrets of the practice of Italian design factories. It would be easy to explain if my English wasn't so limited. The core of it is the fact that we are mediators. We mediate between, on one hand, the best expression of creativity, of a design, on the other hand to find our customers' dreams, also called the market. In this activity of mediator we are very good. I mean we really succeed in helping the best, in attracting and in helping the best talents to express themselves, but on the other side, also, to find a market for them. And this is the reason why when looking for the best British design, very often you have to open the catalogues of an Italian design factory, or the best French design. Because historically Italian design factories have a better development than normal mass-production industries.

You often mention that failure to some degree has to be part of the creative process. It's an interesting point of view because many manufacturers are very scared of failure. Can you talk a little bit about why you think failure is so important?

Yes with pleasure, it's one of my favourite subjects. It has to do with the theory of the borderline, a theory I have developed also some years ago. The theory of the borderline means that we, as an Italian design company we have a destiny, and this destiny is to live and to work as close as possible to the borderline. The borderline is dividing two very different areas: the area of the possible and the area of not possible. The area of the possible is being represented by new projects and ideas, that in the end people will understand, will like, desire, and then maybe buy. And the area of not possible being represented by new projects that people are not ready to understand. The problem is that this borderline is not clearly drawn, you cannot see it with your eyes. But having understood that, a serious mass production company will try to work as far away as possible from the borderline in order not to have to take any risks, but they are also producing the same car, the same television set.
If instead, you are working very close to the borderline, as we do, then with every product you have the risk of falling into the not possible area, but on the other side, when you succeed, I mean to succeed is to produce a project which is very close to the borderline but staying on the right side, you create a kind of monopoly, a small monopoly, because you are the only company producing this novelty item which is a real innovation. The only way you can see the borderline, to have the flesh of the borderline, for a fragment of a second, is when you do a flop. Then in the flop, for one second you can see the borderline. It is then too late for this specific project, but very important for your future, to have a feeling of what happens at the borderline.

That reminds me of what Sottsass was talking about, being scared of not knowing that you're alive and feeling that you're living, because it's only by doing these things of living close to the borderline that you can pinch yourself and realise that you're really there, that you're not just sleepingwalking.

I must say that this way of thinking has come to me very much from these people. I consider them my most important influence, like Sottsass, I was very influenced by him.

Talking about all these maestri of Italian design, obviously Alessi has made a name for itself from working with them in producing very successful iconic products, but what initiatives do you have for promoting younger designers in Italy?

Not to be misunderstood, being Italian we like to work also with Italian designers, that's clear. It is also easier because they are closer, that we talk the same language, sometimes, it helps. But it is not at all a rule. Italian design today is not expressed by Italian designers, it is another story which has to do with the skills of what they say of design, of navigation. Which means the best French design is expressed by Italian design factories, but it is still Italian design, with a French cultural expression. I mean today it is a matter of fact that Italian design, or Italian design made by Italian designers, is not addressing something very interesting on the design scene.

But surely you are in a position to influence this?

Well I can try to, we do try to but we cannot influence too much.

But you must have a lot of influence. Who ties your hands?

I don't know, maybe one reason is that architectural universities have opened design courses now, only on design, with design as a specialisation. When Italian design was only made by architects, by pure architects, it was much more interesting.

So you think it's partly the fault of the education system?

Probably in part it comes from the education system, probably in part it is also a matter of historic cycles. In the end design was so well represented by these designers, like Achille and Piergiacomo Castiglioni, Marco Zanuso, Luigi Caccia Dominioni, Franco Albini, Ettore Sottsass... all from the 50s, but their impact lasted for 40 years. Probably this has fact has influenced it.

But you do still work with younger talents through different projects?

We are extremely interested in understanding who is the new talent, because every year we have to find the new people, this is fundamental for the Alessi survival. But should they come from Italy or from another country is really secondary. We have an activity of collaboration with schools of design and other universities and we organise projects with them, six or seven per year. At the moment we are looking mainly to other countries, like for example Japan and the US, even in part the UK and Holland. But I don't see them as dominant. You have to pick up here and there, hoping that you have made a good choice because you will not understand until later on, when you have developed actual projects, how good it is.

www.alessi.com

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