Known as the ‘Dream Factory’, Italian design dynasty Alessi is famed for the mass production of uber-stylish home and kitchen wares crafted in conjunction with the world’s greatest designers; with some of their most lauded creations being the La Stanza fruit bowl, the Ann G corkscrew and the Arris Wall Clock. The Michael Graves whistling kettle, thought up in 1983, is the brand’s record selling offering.
Originally founded in Omegna in 1921 by Giovanni Alessi as a workshop for processing sheets of brass and nickel silver, by the 1950s, Alessi had begun mass producing using stainless steel, establishing itself as a go-to supplier of equipment for the hospitality trade. It was during this period that Giovanni Alessi’s sons Carlo and Ettore were taken on board, marking the beginning of a family empire and the era that gave rise to the first of many fruitful collaborations with out-of-house creative minds.
Giovanni Alessi’s grandson, Alberto, is the third generation of the family to take over the business and is credited with the transformation of the brand in the 1970s. Working with the likes of Ettore Sottsass, Michael Graves and Philippe Starck, he cemented Alessi’s reputation as the ‘factory of design’ and over the following decade developed relationships with chefs that gave rise to the likes of the legendary Cintura de Orione range. Alberto, the current company president, once expressed his determination to advance products “only I if I believe they are right, not just because it will sell”.
“Alessi is truly the forerunner in the way that we’ve worked with great chefs to fine-tune the development of our cooking utensils,” Alberto Alessi tells Food Republic. “In our case, it was a true collaboration—it has never been just sticking a label with a famous cook’s name on a pot.”
The consumer boom of the 1980s, the ‘designer decade’, greatly aided Alessi’s pursuit of making the ordinary, extraordinary; before then, he admits kitchens were simply seen as nothing but a practical space where the women cooked. “Suddenly that all changed,” Alessi tells the Independent. “The kitchen became a receptacle for the domestic imagination; a place of leisure, a playful place in which men were welcome for the first time.”
However, as beautiful and well-made their creations may be, critics have argued that Alessi sometimes sacrifices function in its pursuit of aesthetic perfection, with their Juicy Salif lemon squeezer, for example, regarded as difficult to aim, while the Hot Bertaa kettle, say some, is difficult to fill. Such claims are acknowledged with a “mischievous grin” by the company president who tells the Guardian that “design victims are important to our business model” because they “they forgo function over the emotional value of a product”. Plus, “they forgive a lot”. Alberto Alessi does admit that the kettle was “a complete fiasco”, but counters that with the admission that he has a “very positive view of fiascos” as they show you “where the borderline was”.
Into the 21st century, the company has continued to collaborate with the coolest of contemporary designers like David Chipperfield, Yan Kaplicky and Zaha Hadid, but their chief worries about a shrinking creative pool in Europe—and Italy especially. The company proudly remains based in Omegna, where the most significant role of its production—the cold forming of metals—continues. But, as Alessi approaches its centenary year it faces new challenges, most notably the massive shift of manufacturing to the East. Even with misgivings, their boss’s faith in his nation holds true.
“It is the skilful mediation between creativity and the market which is a matter of the head, maybe the heart, but not necessarily manufacturing,” he tells Design Indabam. “So Italian design factories might survive even when they are not producing designs by Italians, or even when designs are not produced in Italy.”
While the ‘Dream Factory’ has, of course, long since secured its place in design history.