You might imagine that Alberto Alessi is as finished a product as those his company sells. Instead, it’s a pleasure to discover he is a gentle, disarmingly honest figure in whose blue eyes you can see a genuine conviction that design is, in his words, ‘a new form of art and poetry’.
Officially, he is in charge of design management and marketing for Alessi, but he is the heart and soul of the family-owned homewares company that, as much as any other, has managed to harness design talents to capture, and even anticipate, the zeitgeist. He vacillates between calling Alessi a ‘research laboratory’ and a ‘design factory’. Either way, he’s been responsible for commissioning seminal products such as Michael Graves’ kettle, Philippe Starck’s lemon-squeezer and Alessandro Mendini’s Anna G corkscrew.
‘My role to is be a mediator between the best expression of creativity from all over the world, and what once was called the market, but which I prefer to call people’s dreams,’ he explains. ‘I am like an art gallery owner, a museum curator or even a film-maker.’
It was probably just a coincidence, but when we discuss how the current economic situation and rising ecological criticism of consumerism will affect a product manufacturer such as Alessi, he chokes on his espresso. ‘I am not sure I can justify what we do. But I’m not worried – I am more curious,’ he says.
Since joining the family business in 1970 after studying law, Alessi has experienced a few recessions. ‘The lesson I have learnt is not to change your identity. Alessi is an example of the Italian design factory, and it would be stupid to pretend to be something else,’ he says. ‘Of course, we need to take into account the changes that are happening, but at the moment they are not clear enough.’
With 275 shops around the world and catalogues bursting with more than 3000 products, has Alessi become too big? ‘I would prefer that Alessi were a little smaller, but the rest of the family are of a different opinion. They say I want to control everything, and the smaller it is, the easier it is to do that,’ he says with a smile. He describes the 200 or so designers Alessi works with as ‘a stable of first-class racehorses’ he can count on. ‘My problem is to keep the talent in the stable fresh, and I do this in all possible ways – by following my own curiosities, by outside designers getting in touch with Alessi, or by following the suggestions of my “maestri”,’ he says. ‘I can easily say who the best ten designers over the past decade have been, but the majority of those will not be able to repeat their success in the next ten years.’
To unearth new talent and new approaches, the company has just started one of its periodic ‘meta-projects’, working primarily with design schools rather than world-famous architects. It’s being overseen by his sidekick Mendini, who designed his home and acts as a longstanding consultant to Alessi.
It is too early, says Alessi, to say where it is going, but it’s a demonstration of the risk-taking he believes essential to being a good client of design. The flip side of this is that many designs never see the light of day, ending up in the vaults of the Museo Alessi, a bit like a deep freeze full of little design embryos frozen in time. Alessi is considering issuing these glorious failures as miniatures, perhaps with some information and drawings. Alessi grabs my pen and draws an example: a curious parmesan grater that would arch over a plate but which could not be made to sprinkle cheese accurately.
Alessi’s museum also contains film interview footage of its ‘maestri’, the figures who contributed so much to its catalogue. Interviews with five of them (Achille Castiglioni, Andrea Branzi, Mendini, Richard Sapper and Ettore Sottsass) have just been issued as individual combined DVD and booklet sets. It might initially seem like clever marketing, but the free-ranging ruminations they contain manage to be much more than that.
Has anyone escaped his clutches? ‘Sure, Herzog & de Meuron said they were “too busy doing architecture”,’ he says. Fellow Swiss architect Peter Zumthor declined, but was then coaxed on board. ‘What designer wouldn’t want to design for Alessi? We are so open to their needs, their wishes,’ he asks. Who, indeed?