Design: The irresistible rise of Alessi

He may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but Alberto Alessi has turned it into gold. By David Redhead
Click to follow
Imagine you could re-invent an old-fashioned Sheffield cutlery- maker for the Wallpaper* generation. What sort of groovy products would the tykes be turning out today? Turn-of-the(-last)-century toast-rack classics by Christopher Dresser? Re-editions of forgotten "mid-century modern" knives, forks and spoons? What about some attention-grabbing bits and pieces by Britain's fin de siecle design stars: a teapot by the minimal master Jasper Morrison; an offbeat cruet set by Michael Marriott; an arty bottle-opener by Ron Arad?

OK, it may be a bit late to think of recasting Yorkshire steel in a Cool Britannic mould, but Alberto Alessi reckons that, a few decades ago, a dose of modern design could have been just the tonic that our ailing cutlers needed. "I don't understand why no one in Sheffield thought of it," Alessi's lean and handsome 53-year-old design supremo, general manager and public face tells me. "They wouldn't have been short of design talent."

Glancing through the window of Alberto's creatively disordered office, I can't help wondering whether no-nonsense sons of Sheffield would feel that this urbane Italian is really in a position to judge. His eponymous company is best known for shiny post-modern kettles and glamorous sculptural "citrus presses" commissioned from a glamorous line-up of international design's usual suspects, ranging from Sir Norman Foster to Philippe Starck. And, with its extrovert and vibrant HQ set in verdant grounds in the foothills of the Alps, Alessi might appear to epitomise head-in-the-clouds designer chic.

Some would consider Alessi's current preoccupations rather ivory-towerish, too. This year's main event is the Alessi Summer Festival, which runs until September in the local town of Omegna, 70 miles north of Milan. The festival's focus is the newly completed municipal museum, a post- modern confection by Alessi's architectural muse and official historian, Alessandro Mendini, in a restored steel mill in Omegna town centre.

Highlights include a retrospective show devoted to Alessi products made since 1921, a sale of rare de-listed products, and even a series of concerts featuring the "Alessofono" - Mendini's makeover of the saxophone - in a starring role.

But if Alberto was born - almost literally - with a silver spoon in his mouth, Alessi the company has paid its dues at the sharp end. Thirty years ago, after all, Omegna's metamorphosis into the home of a fashionable international housewares brand might have seemed almost as implausible as Sheffield's does now. An unpretentious little presser and cutter of sheet steel, Alessi had founded half-a-century's worth of manufacturing prosperity on its output of immaculate stainless kitchen equipment. This highly functional kit - bread-baskets, trays, fruit bowls, coffee sets - was (and still is) created in the company's own drawing office and turned out from production lines by the Omegna factory's workforce. By the Sixties, Alessi equipment had become indispensable in caffeterie and trattorie throughout and beyond Italy, but there was nothing fancy about the image. "We didn't have a concept of design at all then," Alberto recalls. "There were few shops selling well-designed things, either."

Alberto prefers to play down his role in the company's transformation. Alessi, he points out, is a family business and his brother Michele, finance director, and cousin Alessio, sales and marketing boss, are important influences. Even so, it is clear that Alberto was the main agitator in the revolution. When his creative ambitions were thwarted by his father Carlo's refusal to let him study architecture, Alberto resolved to find self-expression through the family business. When he joined his father and uncle Ettore at the factory in 1970 as a 24-year-old law graduate, he was determined to inject more art into the industrial mix. "It was terribly hard to convince my father and uncle," he recalls. "They said that the market wasn't ready, that design would never sell. And that I was crazy."

False starts in the early Seventies - including "Alessi d'apres", a disastrous series of pressed steel art works designed by a celebrity round-up including Salvador Dal and manufactured in the factory, seemed to confirm his father's fears. So, by the time Alberto began commissioning kitchen equipment for the home from big-name designers of the late Seventies, the Cassandras of the older generation were already predicting that the new products would go the same way.

It was the consumer boom of the Eighties that came to the young pretender's rescue. "It would all have been impossible but for the revolution in the kitchen in the Eighties," he admits. Until then, he maintains, in Italy at least, the kitchen had been off-limits to all but the women of the family. "Suddenly, that all changed," says Alessi, slipping effortlessly into the portentous designerspeak Italians seem to favour: "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."

Soon Alessi had hit the big time. As the "designer decade" gathered momentum, kettles, coffee pots and cruets by the men Alessi describes as his maestri - Ettore Sottsass, Aldo Rossi, Michael Graves and Philippe Starck - became must-have badges of the aspirational lifestyle in kitchens and living- rooms from Bologna to Berlin. Soon Alessi was surfing the crest of a design wave and he has hardly looked back since: last year, for example, the company sold around 100,000 of Starck's spectacularly impractical lemon-squeezers.

Success has fuelled Alberto's appetite for adventure. Since the launch of Starck's whimsical lemon-squeezer at the beginning of the Nineties, his company has integrated its experimentalism into corporate philosophy. At the heart of the research and development that generate new products is Centro Studi Alessi, a design laboratory where regular brainstorming workshops are held to throw up new ideas. It was sessions like these that prompted the diversification into eccentric forms and unfamiliar materials - wood, glass and, especially, plastic. Now the range includes the sort of wild and wacky things that previous Alessi generations would never have contemplated, from gonkish sugar-sifters to phallic gas-lighters.

The move into plastic has been a hit with the public and with Alessi's accountants - the company has doubled its turnover every five years since the mid-Eighties. Even so, admirers of old Alessi "purism" have been less impressed, viewing the strategy as a fashion-led sell-out that downgrades Alessi into gift-shop culture - rather as if Armani were to be dumbed down and turned into a glitzy Versace lookalike.

Naturally, Alessi's erudite boss doesn't quite see it that way. "Yes, we did go through an identity crisis, but companies are like people: they have to be ready and free to modify themselves. If they don't change, they will perish," he argues. "I look at Alessi today as an encyclopaedia. And an encyclopaedia must include many different kinds of objects."

With more than 2,000 items by 200 designers on the books, the encyclopaedia is certainly expanding fast. So what's next? I wonder. Does the appearance of new, understated designs by Jasper Morrison herald a millennial renaissance for the functionalism of old? Alberto Alessi is playing his cards close to his chest. "The world changes so quickly that it's impossible to plan today," he says non-committally. "All you can do is stay alert."

One thing is for sure, Alessi won't perish through a reluctance to take chances. "What people say about me is cyclical. One year people think I'm doing a good job, the next they're dismissing me as a fool. But we will carry on experimenting and won't worry about the mistakes. Every designer who works for us has had at least one disaster, even Philippe Starck. The day we stop having flops, it will be the end for Alessi."

The Alessi Summer Festival runs until 30 September, 11am-7pm, at the Forum di Omegna, Parco Rodari 1, 28887 Omegna (Verbania), Italy (0039 0323868141)