Matteo Alessi: Grand designs on the tabletop
Matteo Alessi is taking his family's firm into the 21st century. By Kate Watson-Smyth
Wednesday 24 September 2008
He may be a leading figure at the cutting-edge Italian design behemoth that bears his name, but Matteo Alessi, great-grandson of the company's founder, Alberto, would rather spend his weekends pottering around B&Q than cruising the aisles of the Conran Shop.
On a whistle-stop visit to London to promote his design company's latest partnership – with the Italian brewer Peroni – Matteo is wondering whether he has time to squeeze in a quick visit to Britain's leading DIY store.
"Every time I get off the plane I get this stupid grin on my face which I can't wipe off," he says. "I could spend days wandering round B&Q."
His love for galvanised steel screws and flat-pack garden furniture aside, Matteo, 30, had to pass three tests before he was allowed to work for the family firm. The brand has been around for nearly 90 years, and is still very much a family business, but the company has applied strict rules to the employment of anyone bearing its name.
Matteo is the only one of his 15-strong generation who works for the family firm. He gained his Master's degree (rule one), learnt a second language (rule two) and worked for another company for two years (rule three) before he was embraced by his elders.
He rose through the ranks to become head of Alessi UK, and lived in London for three years, until January this year when he returned to Italy for the birth of his six-month-old twins, Giacomo and Annalisa. He is now in charge of marketing and international development, and it is this role that has brought him back to London. He is clearly happy to be here.
But his trip to B&Q may have to wait until his next visit. Matteo is not just here to launch the company's collaboration with Peroni but also the publication of a glossy coffee table book about a range of products influenced by the National Palace Museum of Taiwan.
The marriage of Alessi and Peroni, two well-known Italian brands, sums up both the company's ethos and its approach to design. "For other companies, the design of the product is the spice that makes the food taste good. For Alessi it is the main ingredient," he says.
The company was founded in 1921 and began selling ranges for the catering and restaurant trade. By the 1940s it was creating its own products. Right from the start, design was the driving force. Indeed, Alessi pieces are part of more permanent museum collections than those of any other design house.
The company will spend as long as it takes making sure everything is exactly right. One range of pots and pans was nine years in development; production of the Bombé tea set was halted for a year because there was only one person who knew how to weld the handles to the exact specification, and when he died it took 12 months to train someone else. (There's now a backup).
In addition to its in-house team, Alessi pioneered the idea of working in collaboration with independent designers and architects. This, it claims, keeps its products free from corporate influence, and has led to some 500 partnerships with designers including Ron Arad, who designed a bottle cooler, and Phillippe Starck.
Stefano Giovannoni has produced much of the current collection, from bathrooms to kitchen and tableware. Trained as both architect and industrial designer, he has worked not only with Alessi, but also with Magis, Siemens, Seiko and Fiat, among others.
Giovannoni's latest collection is a collaboration with the National Palace Museum of Taiwan, which houses works from 5,000 years of Chinese history; he used it as inspiration for a series of tableware. An accompanying book, OrienTales: Eastern Tales Through Western Eyes, charts this partnership with a series of photographs showing both the products and the artefacts that inspired them. The designs, such as the Chin Family timer and salt and pepper pots, or the Lily Pad sushi plate, are all available from the store.
Before rushing off to his next appointment, Matteo found time to choose his favourite Alessi creations, "apart from my children" – one from each decade since the company started making its own products in the 1940s.
Matteo Alessi 'My favourite designs through the decades'
The Bombe Tea and Coffee Set
The last thing designed by my grandfather, Carlo, and it still looks modern today. He made it as an engagement present for my grandmother because he didn't like the set she was using. Unfortunately she was from the Bialetti family – makers of espresso machines – so his prospective father-in-law wasn't too pleased.
Citrus Basket 370
This was produced by the Alessi factory rather than a named designer. It's in almost every bar in Italy filled with fruit and I just love its simplicity.
Another iconic product, which my wife Daniela and I had at our wedding filled with almonds for every guest.
This range was Alberto's first project and way ahead of its time. You could mix and match what you wanted to buy and the pieces were designed to go from freezer to oven to table. But people didn't want it. They wanted to buy a complete set rather than pick and choose. We relaunched it in 2005 and it's a huge success.
I love this coffee maker designed by Richard Sapper. It's one of the few that doesn't have a screw base. The handle has to be cooked in a particular way to oxidise it to reach that colour which will last for ever.
If you like Alessi, you will probably recognise the Philippe Starck lemon squeezer. However, you might not know that Starck was initially commissioned to design a tray. But, lunching on squid one day and waiting for the lemon he wanted to squeeze over it, he started making doodles of what would become the iconic squeezer.
Ron Arad cooler
My choice for the noughties is this Ron Arad cooler. It's the latest collaboration between Alessi and Peroni beer. The collection includes this cooler, a bottle opener and a bowl for nibbles. Only 500 of each will be produced, as well as 100 chrome ice buckets. All will be available from late September.
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