I am the owner of a shiny, three-legged Philippe Starck-designed Alessi-produced lemon squeezer. And, like the other half a million people who shelled out nearly 40 for this strange aluminium arachnid, I’ve hardly ever used mine – it’s seen no more than half a dozen oranges and certainly no lemons in its entire life. I use it as a paperweight, a doorstop, and much of the time it stands on a bookshelf. In truth, it’s really pretty useless.
However, there is something about this object that continues to appeal and I can’t imagine the day when I’d send it away to the local charity shop. The Juicy Salif, to give it its proper name, may be less than fully functional, but it stands as an icon of late 20th century design. Not only did it mark the culmination of the excessive Eighties – hindsight helps us gasp at the madness of spending 40 on a lemon squeezer even if it is a slice of Starck – but it also marked a key moment in the metamorphosis of Alessi from cool to red hot, from monochrome to polychromatic, from chic to cheeky.
In the company’s life before the lemon squeezer, Alessi was seen as a manufacturer of expensive, beautifully-made stainless steel kitchen and tableware. Post Juicy Salif, the product list has gone bonkers with the inclusion of more and more brightly coloured plastic in ever more curious shapes.
The creations are wild, exuberant, occasionally funny and sometimes a bit silly. To stalwart Modernists, the cactus-shaped toilet brush, phallic gas lighter and multicoloured Monster napkin rings are frivolous and even anti-Alessi, but they are being snapped up in the shops.
Managing director Alberto Alessi acknowledges that the company’s new image has raised a few eyebrows. “We’ve had strong reactions from people saying that, by moving into plastic, we are damaging the Alessi image, losing our identity, cheapening ourselves. My response is that far from losing our identity, we are helping to move it on and evolve.”
Alberto Alessi has no qualms about moving away from the stripped-back strictness of Modernism. “That phase has passed,” he says, with resounding finality. He is convinced Modernism stood between people and their relationships with products, suppressing innate longings for colour and texture and decoration.
“Objects have a language. They speak to us, often in unconscious ways and in different languages, depending on that of the designers who create them. At Alessi we want to explore these languages. We are looking for the ‘toyful’, the more expressive, complex and delightful.”
He turns to philosophers and psychoanalysts for inspiration. Two major influences are psychoanalysts Franco Fornari and DW Winnicott. The former developed a Theory of Affective Codes which suggests that our choices in life are almost always ruled by emotion. Winnicott identified in human existence a need for toys and play to remind us of the happiness and security of childhood. “In our deepest beings we respond to and have an urgent need for uncomplicated and often childish objects. They give us pleasure and reassurance. Modernism temporarily purged us of these objects of enjoyment, but we are now ready for their return,” he says. Alessi’s sales figures bear him out.
The new products are a very long way from the Alessi output of 1921, when the company was founded in the Alps, around 60 miles north-west of Milan, by Alberto’s grandfather Giovanni. In those days, the firm worked in nickel, silver and brass; its first products were coffee pots and trays followed by an expanding collection of kitchen and tableware for sale to the hotel trade. This less glamorous side of the business continues to flourish.
Just down the road from Alessi’s workshops, Alfonso Bialetti had meanwhile hit on the brilliant idea of mass-producing an inexpensive aluminium espresso coffee maker. The Bialetti Moka Express, with it’s ubiquitous design and distinctive octagonal base, is still made today. Giovanni’s son met Alfonso’s daughter, they produced young Alberto, and when he grew up he brought together the expertise of his grandfathers, thus forging expert metalworking craftsmanship with mass production.
The valley around the town of Crusinalo has a long history of metalworking. Industry was established to make use of the free water power from the river which leads into Lake Orta. This was also the start of the Pewter Road – as early as the 17th century, labourers from here crossed the Alps and travelled into Germany to work in the factories. In the 1850s some of those skilled labourers set up their own metalworking industry, and the river banks are still dotted with a few small factories making pots and pans and utensils. And then there’s Alessi.
Alessi hq today is just upriver of its forebears on the outskirts of Crusinalo, penned in by the Italian Alps, where the best local restaurant loyally sports its full complement of Alessi designs. On every table there is the cruet set by Ettore Sottsass and a yellow plastic Christopher Dresser bowl filled with very good parmesan cheese.
The Alessi factory complex is quite unlike its neighbours. For a start, it’s a kaleidoscope of colour. The collection of painted rectangular and square buildings was the brainwave of Alessandro Mendini – Alberto Alessi’s design consultant for 20 years and a long-time friend.
Mendini acts as both provocateur and advisor, and helps formulate the company’s philosophy. His most successful project to date is the brightly coloured Anna G corkscrew (1994) and he is the only designer who is on the pay-roll – the company has no in-house design team. Instead, Alessi’s “team” is composed of some of the greatest designers in the world: Ettore Sottsass, Richard Sapper, Achille Castiglioni, Javier Mariscal, Sir Norman Foster, Michael Graves, Aldo Rossi, Philippe Starck, Ron Arad… They are known as the maestros.
Using star names as designers was one of Alberto’s first moves when he took over the running of the company in the Seventies. He says he couldn’t face the boredom of heading up a factory that was steady and predictable – he wanted excitement, a challenge.
As individuals, or in groups, the maestros are invited to work on single items or whole series called metaprojects. One of the most recent of these metaprojects, Family Follows Fiction (cocking a snook at the Modernist mantra Form Follows Function), features work by designers as diverse as the Victorian Christopher Dresser and Javier Mariscal.
Whatever the project, there is always encouragement to go one step further, to push both design and the company’s technical and manufacturing expertise to the limits. Alessi likes to take risks and considers them positive and useful. “Look at what has happened in the car industry – no one takes any risks, all cars grow to look the same and the market becomes deadened,” he says.
The maestros are an extraordinary collection of talent, a stable of thoroughbred designers. “People are curious to know how the relationships work,” says Alessi. “The answer is that Starck, for example, doesn’t work for us, we work for Starck. We are the mediators. Alessi’s role is to mediate between the most interesting expressions of creativity and the dreams of the consumer.”
Alessi acknowledges that the designers bring their own philosophies and working techniques. Richard Sapper and Aldo Rossi, for example, are drawn from entirely different traditions, but each is respected for his method of working. Sapper is from the German Ulm School (the successor of the Bauhaus) where designers were expected to know about manufacturing technology, and so he takes a prominent role in the production process. Aldo Rossi has no interest in detail – he is concerned with the integrity of the concept. Then there are designers like Starck, who work at once in broad conceptual sweeps and with minute attention to the detail of perhaps a handle or a lid.
The company is driven by its mission to act as patron and facilitator. It nurtures the creative spark and then works on translating that into a reality. Market considerations come some way down the list of priorities.
This is heady stuff in an age when industry is obsessed with market forces and economy. But, relishing the opportunity to go against the flow, Alberto Alessi is determined to propagate an individual way of working. “Our philosophy does not put economics or mass-production first. The traditional factory conceives design as a tool for marketing and technology; we disagree totally. We think of design as an artistic and poetic discipline. The result is that Alessi is not a normal factory – it is closer to being an applied art research laboratory,” he says.
This style of working must regularly break the nerves of the company accountants, but it seems to work. The reborn Alessi has a higher market profile today than ever. The charming Alberto is bursting with enthusiasm for new projects. He loves walking round the company museum and picking up or stroking one of his favourite products and, above all, he relishes visits to the technical labs to see the prototypes edging their way to production.
For the future, says Alessi, “Our world is full of trays and coffee-makers and bowls, and surely there is no need to design and produce more… but when I look into the future I know I will continue to do so. Why is that? It is as though we are always searching for the new and perfect object, for absolute perfection. I well know the perfect object doesn’t exist, but I am still fascinated by the diverse languages of the great designers I work with. I wait with excitement to see their latest ideas – and when there is magic, I know we’ve done a good job.”
New products showcase
Alessi’s latest collection, clearly demonstrating the company’s dual personality, is a mix of the classical and the crazy. In there, too, is a dash of brilliance. The most intriguing design of the year must be Ron Arad’s Soundtrack CD storage system. So simple and so effective. Made of thermoplastic resin, Soundtrack is a sticky-backed tape with raised, spaced ‘teeth’ between which the CDs are slotted. Et voila! A minimal storage rack that bears a resemblance to Arad’s other intriguing storage idea, the curly metal bookshelf.
Another favourite is Starck’s Ceci n’est pas une truelle cake slice that Magritte would surely have approved of. The shape could easily be mistaken for a trowel, but this Alessi creation is exquisitely fashioned from heavy duty stainless steel and is given a maple wood handle. At the other end of the conveyor belt is Starck’s paletta schiacciamosche, or fly swatter, better known as Dr Skud (‘because it’s selling like a bomb,’ says the designer). This plastic novelty, of regular fly-swat design, but with neat tripod feet and a cleverly incorporated face design in the deadly end, is another of Starck’s amazingly frivolous but successful brainwaves. And we all thought a designer toothbrush was far-fetched!
On that subject, the latest toothbrush, Dr Kiss, comes complete with a pot and, for more serious work, there’s also Dr Kleen the toothpick and holder. Starck crops up again as art director of the curious-looking Moosk radio. This object, resembling a soft, worn pebble, is by designer Gerome Olivet. It can be wall-mounted or left lying around like a small sculpture.
Oscar Tusquets is mastermind of an esoteric trio of thermometers. The devil-shaped Hot Sweet Hot takes care of heat, and for measuring in refrigerators there’s the Chily Penguin, while exterior temperatures are caught in Blue Sky – a cloud shape with lightening bolt. The octopus-inspired Marta Sansoni in her Folpo (Venetian for the tentacled beast), is a curious eight-pronged mixer used to whip up drinks and sauces.
And finally, my choice of the best new products concludes with Caraffa, a cool classical stainless steel jug from Aldo Rossi. It is a chubby cylindrical shape with firm, square handle and triangular spout. It features a neat grid at the spout which aids smooth pouring by filtering out any undesirable lumps. This joins his family of designs produced by Alessi which began in 1984 with La Conica coffee pot.