Housewares maker Alessi focuses on design

ph Luca De Santis

The Main Ingredient

By Mark Curtis

For companies like Italy’s Alessi, design is their reason for being. Established almost a century ago, Alessi is internationally renowned for its housewares designs by acclaimed architects and designers such as Alessandro Mendini, Aldo Rossi and Philippe Starck.

“Design is not a spice we use at the end of the recipe to make it more tasty,” says Matteo Alessi, president of his family company’s American operations. “It is the main ingredient of what we’re preparing.”

Matteo Alessi’s great-grandfather founded the family firm in 1921 in Crusinallo, a village of Omegna in Piemonte. The housewares manufacturer is still based there, about an hour northwest of Milan, though the company’s facilities have grown about tenfold in the ensuing decades. Matteo Alessi and Paolo Cravedi, the company’s managing director for the U.S. and Canada, were in Toronto recently and spoke with Panoram Italia. “We believe in timeless design,” Cravedi says. “We don’t believe in loading new customers with product that you will find obsolete after a year.” Alessi’s housewares – everything from corkscrews and cutlery to sauce pans and steamers – are designed in styles ranging from very serious to seriously playful.

On the serious side is Alessi’s first-ever coffee maker, the 9090, designed by the late German architect Richard Sapper. Debuting in 1979, the 9090 features a minimalist design of polished stainless steel that is anything but minimalist in its manufacturing. “It takes more than 120 different steps of production to make [the 9090] the way it is,” Matteo Alessi says. “Of course, we could have changed some angles here and there in order to save steps of production and cost, but it would’ve been a different object. The fact that this coffee maker is in the permanent exhibition at the MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] in New York is a testament that it is really a piece of art.”

Italian architect Aldo Rossi’s La Conica espresso maker for Alessi is another serious take on this essential household appliance. Rossi’s design suggests a miniature tower building. It’s made of stainless steel with a copper base. On the playful side is a design such as Alessandro Mendini’s Anna G corkscrew, perhaps the most recognized single item in Alessi’s 3,000-product catalogue. Whimsy and elegance are combined in the design that features a smiling female figurine in a long dress. There’s even a male companion, Alessandro M – a self-portrait of the designer, naturally.

Another playful item in the Alessi catalogue is the Juicy Salif juicer by French designer Philippe Starck. Resembling a squid or a spider, the juicer’s long aluminum legs actually provide the space to place a drink glass directly below the juicer. One of Alessi’s recently introduced collections is Extra Ordinary Metal, a collection of baskets, centrepieces and trays made of brass, a salute to the company’s origins as a manufacturer of brass and tin sheeting. Two years in development, the brass series updates an ancient Etruscan method of creating texture on the individual pieces, and surface patterns are inspired by the recurring proportions (known as “the golden ratio”) found in nature.

Although Alessi products are occasionally discontinued, many are in production for decades. The oldest design in continuous production is the Bombé coffee and tea service set designed by Matteo Alessi’s grandfather, Carlo, in 1945. Since the 1970s and under the direction of Alberto Alessi, Matteo’s uncle, the family firm has focused on being an intermediary between fine art and design and the marketplace, in effect bringing relatively affordable art objects to a mass audience. More than 50 Alessi products are in museum permanent collections worldwide, and in 2016 the company sold about 300,000 units of those acclaimed designs, such as Sapper’s 9090 coffee maker. Alessi receives about 450 unsolicited proposals each year from architects and designers, from students to seasoned professionals.

“It’s not just about the aesthetics of the product,” Matteo Alessi says. “We strongly believe that design has to create feelings and emotions.” Whether it’s the admiration for the rigour behind a coffee maker design or a kitchen utensil that has a whimsy that expresses your personality, these personal connections can help elevate good design to great design.

Photo credit: Photos courtesy of Alessi