The head of the family business known for collaborations with designers such as Philippe Starck and Michael Graves insists that "play is fundamental to business".
Alberto Alessi: The man behind fun kitchenware design
Alberto Alessi draws deeply on his cigar and looks around for an ashtray. Surrounded as he is by examples of the products of his industry - carafes, dishes, pots, bowls and vases - he is stumped for a few seconds when he cannot find one. Where is the Spirale ashtray, designed for his company by Achille Castiglioni? It appears to be missing.
Yet, were it here, it would be a shame to use it. One can imagine that many of the people who have bought one in the 25 years since it was launched have been careful to keep it shiny and ash-free. Indeed, Alessi items have become such totems of chic living and statements of one's design sensibility that over the past 30 years or so customers in 60 countries have turned over €100 million (Dh505m) in Alessi products.
Alessi has arguably been at the vanguard of the kitchen's rebirth as the domestic space that most typically shows off our status. If other makers of cutlery, coffee pots and crockery have created the conventional, Alessi has made the consciously quirky and the cultish, and it has had help from world-class designers such as Castilioni, Joe Colombo, Ettore Sottsass, Richard Sapper and Michael Graves, not to mention artists including Salvador Dali and Gio Pomodoro.
Small wonder then, that Alberto Alessi - the 63-year-old head of design and president of the Italian family business established by his grandfather 90 years ago this year - thinks of what he does as industrialism meets art. "Of course profit is essential to survive," he says. "There's no question about that. But it is not the most important issue and most mass-production companies don't understand that. Before I'm an industrialist I'm a human being who needs poetry. We all do. And there's less and less poetry in the little things because of mass production, which in contemporary culture is dominated by marketing.
"What we really do is commercial art," he says. "Like fashion, cinema, maybe even a rock concert, it's the form of art addressed to a much wider audience. That means there are limits to what we can do. Well, not what we can do, but what will be appreciated by our customers. If a product is not accessible, you don't sell it. But we still make items even knowing they're less accessible and will make less money, which sometimes other family members and employees don't agree with."
Alberto's transformation of the family firm from effective steel works to design manufacturer has had its conflicts. His father, Carlo, who died in 2009, always thought Alberto's direction was too radical, and that traditional products were a safer route. But Alberto kicked against what was expected from the outset. While there was little doubt that his career would be in the family business - the tradition in Italy is so strong that he calls it "an issue of destiny" - the realisation of the fact only hit him when he was 18 and his father insisted he study economics. Alberto insisted on architecture. They compromised on law. "What did I learn from my studies?" Alberto says. "Probably nothing. At least nothing important."
More controversial still, especially given the popular conception of an industrialist, Alberto was insistent that the company should be more about fun. "Did the company need the fun? I don't know. But I do think play is fundamental to business activity. And I know that when the company started out there were maybe 30 others in a similar field, and now there is just us. Perhaps it saved us. Production costs with average industrial products are just so high that competition is impossible when the same item can be made in China for perhaps four times less."
The company's response to this predicament has been three-fold. For one, it has acted more like a gallery curator or film producer, tapping into the world's leading design talents and organising them to create products that are understood by enough customers to make them viable. That pool of customers is growing as general interest in design increases, though Alberto notes the pool is not necessarily better educated.
"Design is certainly more popular now. Forty years ago interest in it was niche, even if the industry itself was that much bigger. Now many more people understand and appreciate it," he says. "But now there is a lot of bad design about, too. And in fact that is only muddling understanding of what is good and bad design. There's all the mass media, too - TV especially - that's not a contribution to forming good taste."
Alessi's other big idea has been to pay as much attention to the everyday products we use as to the show stoppers that look great on the worktop - to give as much attention to the shape of a spoon as to the collaborative projects that have resulted in cars, bathrooms, phones and watches. It is in precisely the more humble objects, Alberto stresses that his firm finds its competitive edge. "Throughout history small objects can be masterpieces of applied arts, from vases to salt cellars, and that is what we offer," he says.
This year alone, Alessi will produce about 100 of these "smaller" products.
But Alberto's attempts to produce his own masterpieces mean Alessi must tread a fine line between making money (Alberto is not a fan of all of his products, but recognises their commerciality) and abandoning himself to the kind of provocateur projects that would make the company as radical as he would like it to be - or for that matter, to the design theory in which he is professorially well versed. He is keen to dissect a toilet-roll holder or colander in terms of "affective codes", or how an object tweaks subconscious demands for the maternal or paternal, the erotic, the childlike or the deadly, and how Alessi design subverts such codes.
Indeed, Alberto is ready to make products he knows will have limited appeal, even products that, as some design critics have noted, do not work especially well. One of the company's most iconic items is Philippe Starck's Juicy Salif lemon squeezer, an alien tripod turned kitchen sculpture that, as anyone who has tried to use it might attest to, is almost useless for squeezing lemons. Alessi's response is his third big idea, a surprising one in an age when the utilitarian is feted as an aesthetic goal: prioritise making an object look appealing. Right now, he suggests, that is less quirky and more spartan, as befits the times.
"A good designer is one who has a sense of the spirit of the times but who is able to re-present that in a new form. But I have never been overly concerned with the idea that form should always follow function. If you're creating a bottle opener, for example, in a market where devices for doing that already exist, then the function of the opener actually becomes to provide a more beautiful version. If we were just animals then function would be enough. But we have deeper needs. And, really, there are limits to form. If you ask me what a bowl - an object that has been around for millennia - will look like towards the end of this century, I'm pretty sure it will look like those we have today."
The big question, Alberto asks with a smile, is whether it will be satin or mirrored. He is referring to his ongoing debate (now more of a recurring joke) with Jasper Morrison, who has designed a best-selling range of pots and pans for Alessi. Morrison has always insisted that each stainless steel piece come in a more understated satin or brushed finish, but Alberto, while conceding that it looks better, counters that he cannot ignore the fact that products with a polished or mirror finish account for 70 per cent of kitchenware sales. In Milan, he says, there is even an expression for it: "Five cents more, but mirrored."
"The fact is a polished finish makes something look more precious, more expensive - or at least that's what most consumers think - and it's hard to ignore that," Alberto says. "So we go for what is a typically Italian compromise: we make both."
Alessi products are available at Bloomingdale's, Dubai Mall