Alessi: Joyful and Playful Design
Italians only keep beautiful and useful things in their homes, an Italian friend once told me. Perhaps that’s why most of them swear by Alessi, the famous Italian design company. Alessi rates design very highly, even placing it above profitability.
The owner, Alberto, even revels in his failures, according to an article in Fast Company. He holds his meetings with designers surrounded by his flops in Alessi’s private museum to remind him about the importance of taking risks. Alberto believes that design concepts come from the borderline between failure and success. “At Alessi, we work as close as we can to the borderline and accept the risk of falling into the other area,” he told Ian Wylie at Fast Company. “…When we succeed, we give birth to a new product that surprises people and manages to touch their hearts. And because it is completely unknown, it doesn’t have any competition – which means we can enjoy big margins.”
Alessi design History
The great design company originated from humble beginnings. Giovanni Alessi, Alberto’s grandfather, founded it in 1921. The metal expert created nickel, aluminium and silver-plated brass utensils and dishes in his workshop at valle Strone in the Italian Alps.
Giovanni’s son, Carlo, began Alessi’s tradition of design. He studied at the Instituto Omar in Novara and joined his father’s business when he was very young in the 1930’s. Carlo’s famous products include the Bombe tea and coffee service and the Oil Cruet and Parmesan Cheese Dispenser. The Bombe service has become a collectable and is still the most popular tea and coffee set sold by Alessi.
Carlo eventually became Managing Director and he is now the President.
It was Alberto, however, who transformed the company into a world-wide success by employing freelance designers, increasing exports, and enhancing its reputation for beautiful, useful products and innovation.
When Alberto began working at Alessi at 24, he commissioned the great artist, Salvadore Dali, to design products. His father, Carlo, stopped the project immediately, but not before Dali created an object for the company. Apparently nobody knows what the product’s purpose was, but commissioning Dali shows inspiration, and indicates why Alberto places such importance on his failures.
Richard Sapper, Aldo Rossi and Philippe Starck are just some of the great designers that have worked for Alessi. The company has created many icons, such as Starck’s Juicy Salif juicer, the Anna corkscrew and the ‘Mami’ stockpot, which was designed by Stefano Giovannoni.
Alessi also pioneered new materials and started making products made of plastic, importing the idea of fun into design. Plastic was easier to mould and a cheaper material to produce than metal. The new products included Mr. Suicide bath plug and the aptly titled Mr. Cold, a dispenser that squirts liquid soap from its nose.
Alessi still prides itself on its continuing innovation and novelty in design. It relies entirely on designers from outside and finds, commissions and develops new designers. Two design assistants help with the communication process between the designers and engineers during the manufacturing process.
The company uses a formula to decide whether designs should be developed which emphasizes whether they have a practical function, whether they please the senses, and if they fit with current trends and confer status on the owner. It is also important that the product can be sold at a reasonable price.
Alberto regards profitability as secondary and yearned for ‘joyful, playful design.’ He once dreamed of becoming an architect and brought his love of art and beauty to the company by focusing on important designers and architects and testing products to see if they will inspire emotion in customers.
He still avoids ‘veering toward safety’ and treasures failures because they are important to innovation. Philippe Starck’s Hot Bertaa kettle, for example, was a beautiful design, but it had a mechanism which prevented steam escaping when the water was poured, but Alberto regards it as memorable and thinks that it helped teach him the value of practicality in products.
As well as focusing on modern design, Alessi also reintroduced the work of historic designers such as the famous Viennese art nouveau artist, Hoffman by reproducing his rose bowl and other products.
Alessi is no longer only a manufacturer of kitchen and tableware products. Its range now includes watches, cordless telephones and even cars. Alessi recently paired with Fiat to produce the Alessi Panda Fiat, which features Internet access and has a picture of the Alessi man on its wheels!
It has also become more affordable. A di Alessi, one of the company’s collections, contains mass-produced products mostly made of plastic, which are inexpensive.
This world-wide Italian company continues its tradition of promoting the very best design whilst forever reinventing itself.