As part of the Design Museum’s anniversary series, in association with Icon, the Italian designer and managing director of the Alessi kitchenware brand talks about working with the world’s leading designers and architects
At this year’s Salone, Alessi displayed its Super & Popular collection at its store in Milan – a range of 70 of the most recognisable designs it has produced, from Richard Sapper's 9090 espresso maker to Philippe Starck's Juicy Salif lemon squeezer.
It's tempting to think that the third-generation family firm is having a retrospective moment – certainly when Alberto Alessi says, “I feel much better talking about the past, because the future is unpredictable.” However, as he also says, “We have always been very careful with our history. Without knowing who we are, you are never able to plan the future.”
Alberto Alessi’s predecessors (his father and grandfather) were also the company's chief designers – his father Carlo’s Bombé tea and coffee service is still the firm's bestselling product.
But it was Alberto, who calls himself a “mediator”, who oversaw the company’s move into high-profile collaborations with designers – and architects such as Michael Graves and Hans Hollein. He also moved Alessi, a company expert in cold-forming metal, into other materials such as plastic and glass – although the factory in Crusinallo, north-west of Milan, produces only stainless steel, as it has done since 1921.
Alberto Alessi describes two ways of working with his illustrious roll call of designers. What he calls the “classic” way, is finding a gap in the Alessi catalogue and then assigning a brief to two or three designers out of the 300 he works with.
“But we also rely a lot on the interpretation of our designers, so that they look at our catalogues with different eyes from our own eyes.” Sometimes both approaches meet, in the case of Philippe Starck, who spent two years working on a brief for a new stainless steel tray, and at the last minute presented the famous lemon squeezer design, unprompted.
Asked about the difference between working with designers and architects, Alberto Alessi says, that “an architect is much more likely to think about the general concept, the general form of what he wants to be made” – like Aldo Rossi, for example.
Whereas Richard Sapper, he explains, “is typical of an industrial designer. A project with Sapper, I do not exaggerate, is made of hundreds of small details. He wants to be sure of everything.”
After more than 40 years running the business, Alessi says that the biggest challenge is to continue manufacturing in Italy. He's confident that he will, but also asks: “Is it still Italian design: not produced by an Italian designer and also not being produced in Italy?”
The culture of an Italian design factory is so strong, he says, that his own answer to the question (perhaps hedging his bets a little), “tends to be yes.”