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Since the 1970s, Alberto Alessi has been a trailblazer in the world of product design, working with a roster of all-star talents to produce legendary items for his family’s company, Alessi. On this episode, Dan speaks with Alberto about the time he partnered with Salvador Dali, his creations by the late fashion designer Virgil Abloh, and why it’s bad for designers to have a style.
Alberto Alessi: …not created by marketing in order to sell more, but by the intensity and the inspiration of the designers we are working with. Because you see, we consider designers as a new creative discipline with the metrics, which is clearly poetic and artistic. Artistic and poetic metrics guide design, so guide us.
For that reason, when I mean “search for tools” is trying to offer customers the results of the inspiration of the authors we are working with.
Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein, and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour to the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel. All the elements of a well-lived life. And who knows more about that well-lived life than Italians.
Step into any Italian home from Milan to Palermo, rummage to the kitchen, and you’ll probably find one, two, or many more products from one of the most iconic design brands in the world, Alessi. Known for their tabletop, small appliances, serveware, and especially all things tea and coffee related, Alessi is a powerhouse that has worked with nearly every great designer of the 20th century and beyond, including Philippe Starck, David Chipperfield, Michael Graves, Richard Sapper, Zaha Hadid, the list goes on.
Today, it even includes the likes of the late fashion designer Virgil Abloh. More on that later.
My guest today has been pivotal to the very definition of Italian design and global design culture, Alberto Alessi, president of his family’s company. Alessi was founded in the 1920s by Alberto’s grandfather, Giovanni, and Alberto himself joined the company in 1970. He brought with him a radical vision for his company that included taking a page from the world of furniture.
He brought an outside designers and artists to collaborate on products that elevate everyday objects into icons that sell decade after decade. Even this Grand Tourist can’t go one morning without his coffee brewed on an Alessi stovetop espresso maker by Alessandro Mendini. And if you’re listening to this podcast, chances are, you’ve owned a Michael Graves teapot at some point in your life.
Recently celebrating its 100th birthday with new products and special editions, Alessi is still going strong. To me, when it comes to Alberto, he’s one of those pillars of industrial design culture that isn’t afraid to make a statement and combine art, design, craftsmanship, and industrial know-how in a way that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
I caught up with Alberto from his headquarters in the north of Italy, not far from Lake Como, to talk about the greats that he’s worked with, some insights into Virgil Abloh’s recently introduced and truly industrial-looking cutlery, think across between nuts and bolts and a tool you might find in an auto shop, but super chic, and how the man himself takes his coffee in the morning.
So, you were born in Arona, which is a town on Lago Maggiore, but until you graduated from law school, I don’t really know much about your early life. So, I’m curious what Alberto Alessi was like as a young man, as a teenager.
Thirteen years old, Alberto lived…Okay. When I was 13 years old, I guess I was, say, introverted. I was liking the Italian poet and reading with passion, Italian poets of a beginning 900, and no girls around.
No? Why not? You’re probably-
That’s all. Sorry.
You were a little bit shy, maybe. Yeah. And when you were growing up, did your parents…Because you had other siblings, was it always assumed that you would be taking over the company and running things, or what was that like?
Yes. I was the first of my generation, the first kid. And so, in a way, it was normal for me to accept that I should be into the company at a certain time. So, I was never asked should I like or not. It was written somewhere in the history of my future.
I mean, of course, your company’s history is sort of dominated with the men in the family, but before we speak about them, I was wondering about your mother raising you and being in such a family of design and what she was like and what values did she instill in you.
Well, okay, my mother actually, first of all, we never had a woman into the company direction in Alessi, never.
I may be sorry, but that’s the story.
Then, my mother, my mother was…By the way she was, coming from another entrepreneurial family, the Bialetti company. Her father, Alfonso Bialetti was the inventor and the designer and the first producer of the octagonal aluminum coffee maker. But apart that, she was not at all involved into any kind of business.
Okay. But did she, at least, have…I guess she had an appreciation for the business coming from that family, no?
Yes. But there was a clear separation between the sexes I may admit.
I’m sure. And so, why law school? Why did you go study law?
Well, that’s a bit intriguing, because I actually was much more interested into arts or architecture. Then, my father wanted me to study business economy, which was really opposite to my feelings. And so, at the end, we came into law considering it, at least, from the Italian point of view, a kind of humanistic business area. So, a compromise. It was a clearly compromise.
And when you joined the company after school and you sort of joined the family business, how would you describe the design philosophy of Alessi at that time back then?
Well, maybe design philosophy, it is an excessive word, but I can say…What can I say? What may I say? The atmosphere, the atmosphere in Alessi, when I started working in Alessi end of the ’60s, I may describe it as gray like raw steel. The smell was dominated by the machine oil smell. The attitude, the attitude was quick and well done. And the ideas, the ideas maybe I can describe as make a good product and make some money of it.
When you were there, did you feel that it was a very conservative…
In a way, looking from my side, at least, it was a bit conservative. Maybe looking with other eyes, not that, but…
Sure. And what was the best-selling product at the time when you were joining the company?
The best-sellers were still…Well, by the way, the cocktail shaker design in 1957 by Luigi Massoni and Carlo Mazzeri was one of the best-sellers of the period. It’s still in production today, and it was one of the best-sellers of Alessi.
And you were one of the pioneers of this sort of concept of working with outside designers like Mendini and Sottsass. Can you tell me, how did that happen? How did you go from joining your family business where maybe the guys working in the machines wanted everything to be super simple and very businesslike. How did that story begin where you started to inject this kind of artist and designer-friendly atmosphere to the company?
Yes. Well, first, I have to say that I was actually not a true pioneer, because this was common habit of Italian design factories since the ’50s, since early ’50s. So, I didn’t invent anything in this area. And then, it was a success. Yes, I had to fight a little bit.
I may say about for 15 years, from 1970 to 1985, there was a fight; gentle, but fight with my father and my uncle, because I insisted in pushing how my designers, the new designers I was asking to collaborate with Alessi, and they were, okay, a bit resistant to that. But at the end, it went slowly and it went well.
Do you remember the day you met Ettore Sottsass?
Oh, what was that like?
Ettore was actually the very first, let’s say, important designer I met in 1970. In 1970, he was brought to Alessi by a friend of mine who was an architect with the purpose of organizing a collaboration. He was agreeing very well to collaborate with Alessi. And how did they came to Alessi? First of all, Sottsass.
Then from Sottsass, I asked him to suggest me some names of other designers able to collaborate with us. And Sottsass gave me the name of Richard Sapper, telling me, okay, Richard is doing a completely different kind of design from what I’m doing personally, but I admire him. He never made a mistake in his career in terms of projects.
And so, I went to Sapper. Then, another suggestion from Ettore Sottsass was about Alessandro Mendini. And then, so, I started middle ’70s to collaborate with Alessandro Mendini. And then, from Mendini, he suggested me to contact Achille Castiglioni. It all went like that, from suggestions to suggestions. I may say that the people I consider my old maestros, they have been always very generous of suggestions to me.
When it comes to Ettore Sottsass, I’m curious, because for my generation, we only have his objects. Right? We only know him from his objects and from his pieces, and we don’t know him as necessarily as a person. What was he like to…If you had dinner with Ettore Sottsass, what was he like at dinner, like as a person?
Well, he was a very elegant man. Very sympathetic, funny, able to be funny, a good companion to the table, because he was liking very much eating and drinking. He was liking a lot drinking. I may say I’m very grateful to have met him so early because he was always telling me some very interesting story or comments or note about his view on design, or better to say, his view on the world in general. Because Ettore was a kind of little philosopher, if I may say so.
What would you say his philosophy was? What was he trying to instill in you back then?
Well, for example, once, he told me…I will always remember he told me, remember…To the young Alberto, remember that you have a strong responsibility as a businessman, because with your activity, you fill the world with millions, thousands of millions of objects of things that, in a way or another, will influence the life of people.
So, never forget that you even if you are a businessman, and apparently, only looking to business and to make money, actually, you have a strong social responsibility, and in a way, cultural responsibility.
And when it comes to someone like Alessandro Mendini, what was his personality like? I mean, we lost him a few years ago, unfortunately, but back then as a younger man, what was he sort of like to work with?
Well, Alessandro was probably the most influencing personality I worked with. Because he not only designed objects for Alessi, but he worked as official historian of the company. He wrote the first book on the history of Alessi, in 1979, called Paesaggio Casalingo. He was responsible of some meta projects, I mean, of some design researches that we organized over the time, inviting several architects, not having done any industrial design before, only architecture, and inviting them to design some housewares for us.
And he was the companion of the most risky projects, for example, the Alessophone. The Alessophone was a kind of newly-designed saxophone. What else? And then, I have also to say that Alessandro was very proud of the fact that he was considered a designer designing things that actually do not sell, meaning-
That’s a problem.
Not at all for him. Meaning that he was too sophisticated for normal people, for normal customers’ taste. It was very true, except that in 1994 with my help, he did the mistake of his life creating Anna G. Anna G is a corkscrew that’s also the caricature of his younger girlfriend of the period, who is also a designer, Anna Gili.
This Anna G corkscrew became one of Alessi’s bestseller, very popular. But I repeat, it was a mistake from his side.
Did he regret it? Did he regret that, in the end, it’s a corkscrew that was this most-
Probably, not at the end.
I’m sure. After maybe some royalty checks, I’m sure he didn’t mind too much. And so, I’m also curious, because reading about the company, working with some of these designers, you also worked with some artists, like helping them do multiples and stuff. And I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more. I heard that you worked, at some point, with Salvador Dali, and what was that…Can you tell me that story?
Well, it was at the very beginning of my career. When I started in Alessi, I mean, officially, in July 1970, I immediately felt this too gray atmosphere within the company, so I started to bring some fun.
One of the ideas I had was to use our machines, the production presses, instead of making trays or wine coolers or coffee makers, to produce instead real art pieces. I mean art multiples. I mean objects with no function at all, only like sculptures, and produced instead of by hands, by directly, by the author, produced by machine in an unlimited number of pieces.
And so, it was the period where also in design critics…In design history, they were talking about multiplied art, art multiples. And I asked Gio Pomodoro, Carmelo Cappello, Pietro Consagra, Andrea Cascella, Dušan Džamonja, Yugoslavian, to create a sculpture in order to be produced by machines. I also at the end, asked Salvador Dali.
But since the operation…That was called… The name was Alessi D’Apres. This operation Alessi D’Apres was introduced in 1971 with the first two art multiples. And in a few months, immediately, it was clear that it was a big fiasco. I mean, people didn’t…
…accept the idea of having an art piece to the level of a tray, or to the level of a wine cooler.
And so, my poor idea of art multiples was stopped by my father. So, that…I also had and paid for Salvador Dali for an art multiple for Alessi. His project was called L’Objet Inutile, vase, sur un problème de topologie négative. And I can show you the picture of this drawing, but at the end, it was made by a big comb, and to each tooth of the comb was welded a big, very big hook for the fish to the salmon.
So, it was also a bit dangerous to handle this. Should have been very difficult to handle. But at the end, as I told you, my father stopped me to continue with this project. But he didn’t succeed in stopping me before he bought out 50,000 of these hooks for the fish to the salmon for the first series of 1,000 multiple because each multiple was needing 50 hooks. And so-
Did you sell them? Did you sell the thousand-
No, we still keep in our warehouse.
Really? You have all of them?
Almost all of them.
Oh, my gosh.
After Dali…No. One of the designers I asked was able to find a new way to reuse the hooks.
And was that before you met Sottsass and started to do these kinds of designs?
It was slightly before, and contemporary, too.
Okay. And did you think that working with such artists like Dali kind of helped train you to work with these new designers of the time that were a little bit more, that were a little bit more radical? It wasn’t a wasted effort. If you look back on it, I mean, you’ve made a career working with some of the most talented people in the world. So, if you can work with Salvador Dali and other artists, I mean, I’m sure that it-
Maybe financially, it wasn’t a good idea.
Purely financially, it wasn’t. From the other side, I don’t know. I do not understand even today, because at the end, the work with pure artists in design has little to do, in my opinion. Pure artist has to do his work, his job, and not to do industrial design, with some exceptions, of course. So, I would not repeat it.
And coming from that age was the kettle from Michael Graves, an American designer and one of your bestsellers. How did that come to be? How did you meet Michael Graves and how did that sort of icon come to be?
Okay. Okay. Michael Graves came from the design research called Tea & Coffee Piazza. The operation was presented in 1983, and it was the first…I can say the first Italian design operation concerning outside designers. Not Italian designers, not necessarily Italian designers.
I may say that it was important for the development of Italian design, because if you consider our history, our design history, until all seven Italian design was marked, was characterized by two elements. One, the first to be produced in Italy by an Italian company, and the second, to be designed by an Italian designer or architect.
I may remember you that design in Italy, design is the son of architecture, clearly, the son of architecture. With the Tea & Coffee Piazza, we decided to open the store and to offer to collaborate with Italian company, also, foreign designers or mainly foreign architects. And after it, at the end, if you look to Italian design at the end of the ’80s, it was different, this picture, because maybe majority, or at least 50% of the project during the ’80s were not anymore designed by Italian designers, but still, I insist still being part of the Italian design spirit.
And what was that Piazza, the Coffee & Tea Piazza, what was that? Was it an exhibition or…
It was a research. When we asked…We invited 13 architects, pure architect, meaning, that they had no design experience before, young architects, generally speaking. The older was above…close to 50. And we asked them to design with a lot of freedom, a tea and coffee set, which is a center focus of an Italian design houseware company, and leaving them a lot of freedom. The purpose was not exactly…we were asking to design them…we’re asking them to design something for production. Actually, the production was at the end made by hand in a limited edition 99 pieces, and mainly in silver, in solid silver.
The main purpose was to understand whom maybe between these 13 was also interested and interesting to design something for the industrial production. And so, actually, at the end of this research, we understood, we discovered, I may say two of them, Aldo Rossi and Michael Graves, being also potentially very great industrial designers.
In particular, Michael Graves was impressive to me because he had the idea to develop himself a new kind of American design, very typically American design.
And in the ’90s, when you started to work with materials outside of steel and the traditional things that the company had done, can you tell me a little bit about how that shift happened and what that experience is like for you? Was it difficult? Because the ’90s is something that we, sometimes, we skip over when we think about the history of design sometimes. And I was curious if you could tell me a little bit about that time for the company.
Well, if that’s what you ask, it was not, the opening of Alessi to very different materials and production techniques was not the result of a deep strategic thinking. Not that. On the contrary, simply, it has happened that, because designers, we were working with mainly new young Italian designers at the beginning of the ’90s, they felt too limited by the technology of cold forming metals, which is a very limiting technology in order if you want to express, let’s say, difficult three-dimensional shape.
And so, step by step, they convinced us to open outdoors not only to young designers, but also, to new techniques, in particular to plastic. And also, later on, to porcelain, to glass, to electronics, but mainly, to plastic.
As someone who was raised in a family of steel and this sort of tradition, was that difficult to work in these new materials, or did you enjoy it?
I made it very naturally without thinking too much. It was like a spontaneous process of development that brought me to that. Maybe should I do it today? I would be more cautious, more concerned. Because still, we continue to be metallurgists or metalomaniac, I don’t know how to call it. Metallists, metallists, yes.
I mean, there’s a period of Italian design now of a lot of these post-war companies being taken over by investment funds and people looking just to sell more, right? To increase profits more than anything else. What do you think about that? What do you think about this new era of the Italian design movement that you described earlier?
I confess I am concerned, but what can I do? I’m trying to fight with my own forces. The true deep spirit of Italian design companies, Italian design factories could, step by step, disappear in front of the marketing strategies.
And one of the products for your hundredth anniversary was the so-called occasional object by the late Virgil Abloh. Can you describe the project to those listening and share what that creative project process was like with Virgil?
Yeah. The collaboration with Virgil Abloh was an example of trying to be open to new sensitivities of the people. I may say, first of all, that I have no particular interest into fashion. I’m not fascinated at all by the fashion industry. It’s far from what I’m practicing in design.
So, I look to Abloh as I usually do with other designers I meet and I start collaborating with. Will he be able to interpret our time with new, interesting projects? I tried, we tried. We believed in him because I found him a good approach, a good spirit, a good will. And now, we are in the process of understanding if he was able to interpret our times with new projects.
Well, when it comes to Virgil, when you were speaking to him about these projects, of course, before he sadly passed away, was he fan of the sort of Alessi, the sort of Italian design? How was he approaching your collaboration?
Well, I don’t know whether he was a fan or not, but he approached us. I like that. Because he wanted to experience, to try to do real industrial design. He was an architect, so basically, with all the tools to try to do industrial design.
But what I appreciated in him was the wish to try the challenge of collaborating with the true Italian design factory, designing not only limited edition of fashionable design, but design that could put a mark in the design history in a way. This was his ambition, and what I appreciated to…this is why we tried to start together.
And with the collaboration, was he a fan of Alessi? Did he know the company, or what was he…because the project is a set of cutlery, right? It’s sort of like an industrial…
The first project was a set of cutlery. The second project we are introducing now is an interpretation of the famous kettle with the singing bird designed by Michael Graves in 1985. And a third project that we will introduce next spring is another cutlery complimented with some table accessories.
And I was curious, you’ve talked about a series of principles of good design, and one of the things you’ve often said is it’s bad to have a style. Don’t have a particular type of style. I’m wondering if you could explain why, what does that mean?
The reason is probably because, since I believe design is a new poetic and artistic discipline, even if devoted to industrial production, so how can we ask or recommend to a poet the language he has to use? He must be free. Or ask to a musician the kind of music he has to play? He has to be free. So, for that reason, I focus on the quality of the talent being he minimalist or maximalist, postmodern or radical. Not at all on its so-called style.
And how do you think, moving forward, how are you going to…when you meditate on how to improve things and to how to do things differently, what do you need to do differently?
Well, I’ve learned, step by step, my job, because it took my some decades to understand exactly or more clearly what is my job. At the end, I do believe once again that we have to believe into the creation, the free creativity of the designers.
Our real job, our real task is to find a real good poet between all thousands of designers we are in contact with. And then, all the rest is very clear to develop.
And I’m curious, when I think of Alessi, of course, as many people do, I think of coffee and I think of tea, and especially I think of Italian coffee. I’m curious, how does Alberto Alessi take his coffee every morning?
Well, of course, I’m happy because…I’m lucky because I have the full collection of our coffee maker. So, according to the mood I wake up, I can choose the coffee maker. In this very moment, I’m using the Alessandro Mendini coffee maker created around 10 years ago.
What’s the name of that one?
Moka Alessi. The name was Moka Alessi.
And what mood do you have to be, to be into that mood?
For the Mendini? I can say, well, a relatively good mood. Not always happens.
And what if you were in a very bad mood, which coffee maker do you choose for a bad mood?
I guess I would use the conic of Aldo Rossi. The conic shape of Aldo Rossi.
Thank you to Alberto and everyone at Karla Otto for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, please, follow me on Instagram at Dan Rubinstein to learn more and sign up with your email for updates at thegrandtourist.net. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen, and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Till next time.
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