Even those with only the remotest interest in design will have noticed at least one design classic by Italian manufacturer Alessi over the years. In the 90s, the company put out a plastic menagerie of funky household accessories: nutcrackers in the shape of squirrels, whisks mimicking octopus tentacles, rabbit-shaped electronic timers, duck-like soap dispensers. Many of these waggish creatures, in their trademark boiled-sweet colours, had grinning faces, as if they were on Prozac or E. Hip, happy and youthful, they are, in retrospect, perfect icons of the rave generation. Alessi divides opinion down the middle: people see its creations as joyously witty or annoyingly jaunty. Take the second view, however, and you’d be dismissing a huge and influential chunk of Italian design history.
Founded in 1921 by Giovanni Alessi, the company initially produced stolid, respectable coffee pots and trays in nickel, bronze and silver. Alessi’s workshop was at Ormegna, beside Lake Orta, in the Italian Alps’ Strona Valley; Alessi was one of a long line of metalwork manufacturers who’d settled there since the 18th century. But it was the next two generations of this family-run firm who would transform a business respected for its impressive workmanship to one admired for its innovative design. Taking up the reins in the late 30s, Giovanni’s son Carlo, who created most of the company’s designs between 1935 and 1945, had the foresight to realise stain- less steel was poised to become the metal du jour. His last confection, the ‘Bombe’ coffee and tea set, with its bulbous, almost Disney-esque forms, presaged the cartoony look that currently typifies Alessi’s designs.
Alberto Alessi, Carlo’s eldest son and the company’s managing director, can intellectualise about them until the cows come home. Alessi’s duty is to create happiness, take risks, transcend functionalism and acknowledge that mass production can lead to dully homogeneous design. A romantic Socialist who joined the firm in 1970, he was determined to introduce such egalitarian, maverick concepts as art multiples. Carlo, however, took one look at a prototype for a multiple by Salvador Dali, and pulled the plug on the project.
This didn’t stop Alberto from insisting on the interdependence of art and design. He calls the Alessi workshops (based in nearby Crusinallo) an ‘Italian design factory’ and ‘a research laboratory for applied arts’. Alessi is the natural heir, he says, to the Arts and Crafts movement initiated by John Ruskin and William Morris and kept alive by Bauhaus, the early 20th-century Vienna Workshops and the clean-linedScandinavian 50s designs of the likes of Alvar Aalto. ‘Our products should be considered handicraft items made with the aid of machines,’ he says with an unusually guttural Italian accent.
High-falutin’ stuff. But how can Alberto claim that Alessi’s recent, apparently throwaway, synthetic designs belong to this tradition? ‘A true work of design must move people, bring back memories, surprise, transgress, be poetic,’ he says. In his eyes, it’s important to recognise the symbolic, psychological and emotional impact of design. For him, design is as much about play as function.
This fun-loving attitude has been embedded in Italian culture since the 60s: the decade’s pop designers rejected functionalism for frivolous ornament, colour and form. Italian giant Ettore Sottsass designed a toy-like red typewriter for Olivetti; Donato D’Urbino, Paolo Lomazzi and Jonathan De Pas their inflatable armchair. US postmodern architect Robert Venturi – Alberto’s all-time hero – championed ‘hybrid elements rather than pure ones’ in his 1965 anti-modernist book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture .
In the 70s, Alberto upped the company’s profile by hiring such design titans as Achille Castiglione, Alessandro Mendini, Richard Sapper, Sottsass and Venturi. In the 80s, he employed Michael Graves – he of the oh-so-80s conical kettle with a bird for a whistle. Suddenly, Alessi’s range of workaday kitchen utensils expanded to embrace ashtrays, clocks, watches and blenders (produced with Philips). Ironically, in the style-mad 80s, Alberto’s democratic principles were betrayed by the acquisition of Alessi goods by status-symbol-craving yuppies. The Alessi ethos may value form as much as function, but this was going too far. Alberto admits the brand underwent a crisis, but prefers to call it ‘a turning point’. ‘I hope to have a crisis every 10 years, otherwise we wouldn’t develop as I’d like. A central part of our identity is to move with society.’
The amazing change of direction that improved the company’s fortunes in the early 90s was down to the intuition of a young generation of international designers he employed, among them British-based Jasper Morrison, Marc Newson, Ron Arad, Sir Norman Foster and Francesca Amfitheatrof. ‘My best marketing experts have always been my designers. They felt it was time to get into plastic. They were right: customers were yearning for joyful, playful design.’
Out went the decade’s harsh geometric shapes and monochrome surfaces. In came childlike, organic forms, like Philippe Starck’s ‘Juicy Salif’ lemon squeezer, made for Alessi. Some of the new Alessi designs were shaped like cute animals, others were anthropomorphic, namely ‘King-Kong Family’ – stick-men and stick-women designed by Stefano Giovannoni and Guido Venturini.
In Britain, these designs could be bought from department stores as well as chichi shops. Catherine Rogers, 29, and husband Andrew, 35, both interior designers, have been collecting Alessi pieces for five years. ‘We love the funky designs,’ says Catherine. ‘We’ve got ashtrays, a biscuit container, three jars and green scales.’ Lighting designer Tom Kirk, 28, bought his ‘Spirale’ ashtray, designed by Castiglione in 1970, in the Oggetti/Alessi shop on London’s Fulham Road six years ago. ‘I used to do silversmithing and prefer Alessi’s metal pieces,’ says Kirk. ‘I’m not keen on the plastic stuff – all those dodgy squirrels.’
It’s fair to say that, by contrast to the exuberant, overtly humorous Italian designs in Alessi’s 2,000-product catalogue, those of Morrison, Foster, Newson, Arad and Amfitheatrof show considerable restraint. Among Morrison’s designs is a salad bowl with a subtle notch on its rim for your thumb to grip. Arad, a London-based Israeli, produced Soundtrack – a CD holder comprising a long, thin strip of thermoplastic resin with tiny indentations to slot in CDs. ‘Italian design is not understated,’ says Alberto. ‘But Morrison’s is, which I appreciate. He’s the heir to classical English designers, whereas Arad creates genial ideas.’ He says Arad’s (non-Alessi) curving ‘Bookworm’ bookshelf ‘reinvented the way you put books on shelves’. Australian-born Newson, who loves colourful, honed shapes, is influenced by Aboriginal culture, claims Alberto. He spotted the work of Amfitheatrof, a Royal College of Art silversmithing postgrad, at her final show: ‘I was struck by her condom-holder. Silversmiths work on a microcosmic scale; they’re introverts. But her piece convinced me shecould make the transition to product design, which is about designing for others.’
What next for the ever-evolving Alessi brand? It’s all down, it seems, to what his muses, the designers, decide is the next big thing. Creativity is a bottomless pit, according to Alberto. ‘I firmly believe,’ he declared recently with unabashed enthusiasm, ‘that all the beautiful objects we have seen all these years are nothing compared to what we could do if only we learned to look at ourselves fearlessly, if we had the unswaying courage to face the white-hot, glowing core of the vastness of creative possibility.’
• Alessi, 22 Brook Street, London W1 (020 7491 2428).
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