Does your attention to detail extend beyond your wardrobe, bookshelf and record collection? Then there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with Alessi. If not, read on and perhaps you´ll be persuaded to change your evil ways.
Being of a partially Mediterranean descent Alessi household goods have always been present in my life. Years of therapy have led me to believe that the Alessi octagonal coffee service could, sadly though indirectly, be named the chief instigator of one of my very bad habits: the Rewinding of Films whenever I see something clever and beautiful of design in them. And should you be partial to films from the 40.s to the 60.s there is quite a lot of rewinding to subject your poor friends and relations to. Not to mention the video of course, though this is really no excuse as that is the exact reason why some kind soul invented the Digitally Versatile Disc-system. You see now how everything falls into place don’t you?
The Alessi family hails from the Strona valley in Italy. During the 1700s, Italians from this region migrated as far as Germany to learn the pewter trade. Sometime during the turn of the century focus shifted from manufacturing household goods in pewter to brass, nickel, silver and soon stainless steel. The Strona valley collected several of these manufacturers with their workshops and factories around the Lake Orta. The region became the bustling centre of these activities and the evolution of the trade is, apparently, quite visible as most of the factories and workshops in the area remain intact.
The long history of Alessi is not only visible in the region that is the birthplace of the company, but also apparent in the long collaborations with many of their designers. Alessi design as we know it spans 8 decades and has incorporated design luminaries such as: Marco Zanuso (who anyone interested in Italian design will be familiar with), Michael Graves, Ettore Sottsass, Aldo Rossi… the list could be made endless and one could not safely mention a few without embarrassingly omitting others (like all the in-house designers connected to the Alessi family).
One of the benchmark events in Alessi history was the war. With the demand for household goods in decline, the company shifted its down-to-earth traditional trade for the mass production of metal uniform details and aeronautical parts. In effect this change introduced a new material to the designers of Alessi: stainless steel. Alessi, led by the design vision ofCarlos Alessi (who was the first “real“ designer of the company and who would replace his father Giovanni Alessi as the head of the company in the fifties) realised the potential of this material and accurately predicted that it would soon replace silver, brass and chromed metals. With the investments made in the infrastructure for mass production the future had arrived in the shape of stainless steel products which where easier to mass produce and would soon bring Alessi design to a wider market.
With Carlo Alessi at the helm of the company and Ettore Alessi (Giovannis younger brother) supervising the technical aspects of production Alessi now began to open up to external designers. The concept of design was relatively new to the household goods market and Alessi was really the perfect example designing several projects where actual design was only tempered by the confines of technical considerations. This open minded attitude was also apparent in the company’s choice of designers as quite a few of these had gained their expertise in other fields of design and construction. Good examples are Ettore Sottsass and Aldo Rossi who are (or sadly, were in Aldo Rossis case) primarily architects. The company claims that working with designers with a background in architecture is easier than working with industrial designers, as the architects are more willing to delegate the technical execution to engineers and technical specialists, a sentiment that seems quite logical. This relaxed approach is beautifully apparent when you see one of the finished products.
Designers and Designs
Alessis output remains stupendously varied: some designs functional and with that air of familiarity that good design often has and some whimsical when functionalism has had to take second place to aesthetics. Coffee and tea-sets, several ranges of cutlery, ornamental ceramics, plastic containers, ashtrays and wine coolers… Alessi has tried its hands at so many areas of design and most often with success. A most obvious sign of success is of course that quite a few Alessi designs have been plagiarised.
A good starting point for someone unfamiliar with Alessi design is their coffee makers: functionality and design in a product that makes the mundane task of making espresso a pleasure to the eye as well as the palate.
My own personal favourite is Aldo Rossi’s “La Conica“, a tall espresso maker with a brass base: this product makes Rossi’s background in architecture obvious (On a more silly note: see the British film “Shopping“ where a Rossi-designed coffee maker is put to hilarious use over an open fire to make tea providing the only enjoyable moment in an otherwise dreary production) and was an evolution of his involvement in the Tea & Coffee Piazza (overseen by Alessandro Mendini), an Alessi project inviting architects to design their own takes on the tea and coffee set.
A few of Rossi’s great designs for Alessi are: the democratic aluminium “La Cupola coffee maker”, the “Il Conico” kettle and all the other products surrounding coffee drinking. In fact Rossi’s extensive research in the field has resulted in the “La Conica e alter caffettiere” book (1984).
And should you be one of those cretins who, much like I do, takes a cigarette with espresso, then why not rest your nasty cigarette butt on an Achilles Castiglione designed ashtray? The late Mr Castiglione may be known to you for various products such as for instance the “Rochchetto table” or the “Arco lamp”. No? Well then you should lend his Alessi smoking utensil an eye: great design and the dastardly clever spring construction allows for your guilty pleasure to never fall off the side and thus setting fire to someone important. And who knows, your display of taste might make the mother-in-law (or someone else you need to woe to your side) more tolerant to your nasty habit (mind you just your nicotine habit, not your habit of being mouthy and arrogant). Should this clever ruse for achieving “immediate son-in-law appreciation” or just plain appreciation fail, hastily replace the ashtray with some stainless steel wire baskets. Fill them with some biscotti or just something edible like fruit or bread and sit back and enjoy. In the case of this not working I am afraid setting fire to the person you’re trying to impress might be the only stratagem left to you as he/she won’t like the “Firenze”- clock (design by Mr Castiglione and older brother Pier) on the wall either. Nor your playful Stefano Pirovano designed watch.
So let’s not ponder the unpleasant things but rather just focus on what could best constitute your personal Alessi experience. A product you will probably have seen is the “Juicy salif” juicer by Philippe Starck (are you getting a certain War of the Worlds vibe from this one or have I had a drink too many?) To be honest I’ve only ever seen this product used as an ornament and never actually used in a kitchen. The container set series somewhat reminiscent of traditional Japanese containers are much more to my tastes and I am still fascinated by the cake server perhaps because of the fact that I am still not certain if it should be used for culinary delights, manly masonry or homicidal heroics… If you are a Philippe Starck fan already there are quite a few objects that might suit your fancy. Maybe even his prototype design for an Apriliascooter.
Whereas some of the Alessi output is clever but still restrained there are several ranges and products that are more, shall we say playful? You might have seen the anthropomorphic output largely popularised during the 80′s?
Tastes will vary but many of these objects still show the wide spectra of Alessi design. Philippe Starcks’ various works in plastic range from astonishing to unsettling. The “Dr Kiss” toothbrush, Mister MeuMeu cheese grater, “Les Ministres tray” and “Bertaa” kettle are all good examples of design that everyone might not like but will certainly have an opinion on.
Even if you are a fanatical follower of Krups or Gaggia it might be worth your while to have a look at Richard Sapper’s expert output for Alessi. His designs for automatic coffee makers boast functionality stemming from one of industrial design’s greats paired with the playful and sleek aesthetics fitting Alessi. The “9091” tea kettle stands in sharp contrast to the above mentioned techno-artifact with its simple and beautiful design and the costly detail of the whistle. It also makes for a great gift as most people boil water at some point in their lives.
Alessandro Mendini, another architect and former editor of architectural and design publications “Casabella, Modo and Domus” has been working with Alessi for a long time. The collaborative effort between Philips and Alessi to make kitchen appliances was based on his designs and would probably suit even the hardiest space cadet. The Anna G range of products is one of Alessi’s bestsellers and Mendini has also designed several extensions to the Alessi plant situated in Crusinallo. Mendini not only supplies design vision but also a lot of marketing clout as he is internationally employed as a consultant to give advice on brand and design identity strategies.
To get a different twist on Alessi products take a look at Michael Gravesdesigns. Not hugely different but certainly leaning more towards an American design flavour rather than the continental Graves first started working for Alessi in conjuncture with the “Tea & Coffee Piazza” and has worked on several projects since then. Graves items seem destined to land in the bosom of the nuclear family. Playful but down-to-earth design for objects you are going to use every day. The vibe from the fifties might just be in my head but this paired with excellent details and a no-nonsense approach to design strikes a very pleasing balance. The round stainless steel of “the Kettle with bird” paired with the polyamide handle makes it strict but still humane. The range developed from this item all feature the same riveting and style of handles. The breadbox and cheese board further promotes the style while still remaining playful and detailed.
Another interesting area, assuming you like a drink now and then, is the selection of products for the bar. The shaker and ice bucket designed during the late 50′s by (Luigi) Massoni and (Carlo) Mazzeri are prime examples of Alessi design at its best and are once again much used favourites of mine.
The shaker, with its neatness of design and discrete finish, is perfect for anything up to four cocktails (with a bit of effort and some goodwill) and lends itself perfectly for late night vulgar acrobatics courtesy of and inspired by Tom Cruise and that older chap with the wrinkles and accent. It has all the features one could expect of a shaker and is very easy to use. The ice bucket complements the shaker perfectly and it, if you are not an all-glass ice bucket person, makes a perfect centre piece on a stainless steel Alessi tray of your choice.
Complement these two items with the Boston range “Shaker” and Wine cooler designed by luminary Ettore Sottsass (with a bit of help from Alberto Gozzi, the Alessi “gastronomic” advisor) and you will be almost completely covered in matters of drinking.
And even though these items originate from different minds and have their obvious differences in design they go surprisingly well together.
The great Mr Sottsass, who quite probably has the most designs in the Alessi catalogue, has also designed an item anyone who has frequented some Italian restaurants, or any other restaurant for that matter, will at least be vaguely familiar with: the classic Alessi condiment set. Personally I find the larger set to be scaled for restaurants and such. It collects facilities for salt, pepper, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. This product is quite handy and something very much approaching an industrial standard. The smaller condiment set is slightly more discrete (but lacks the solution for the fluids) and would suit most any table and in addition the sugar bowl is an excellent design should you for some reason take sugar in your espresso.
There are also several products aimed towards the catering market. Functionalism and modular stainless steel designs are understandably key in these product ranges. But with a bit of effort and a lavishly expansive kitchen some of these might actually fit into a regular persons daily habits. In fact the pared down and trim designs necessary for this pragmatic market makes many of these products a restful and effective addition to the even the amateur kitchen.
Should you not be satisfied with transforming just the kitchen and dining spaces into Alessi cityscapes you can further indulge yourself with the bathroom range: Il Bagno Alessi. Not to be confused with the various accessories for the bathroom (like toothbrushes, cups and floss dispensers) Alessi has produced, Il Bagno Alessi deals with the hardware. Things like bathtubs, faucets and wash basins. Things that really should look good and have pleasing forms as we inevitably use them each and every day.
The scope of the Alessi design vision will on paper at times seem daunting. The various products and designs might even seem erratic to the casual observer. Depending on which design era one might focus on a closer look will yield the most different results. Somewhere in there you will notice some sort of coherency. The fact that Alessi are reproducing a few Bauhaus designs and the various Alessi forums for young designers seems indicative of a larger view on industrial design. Or maybe it’s just respect for great design? Who knows?
[Published 2 April 2003]
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