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The whimsical Alessi bird whistle tea kettle, designed by architect Michael Graves in 1985, is the company's best-selling item of all time. (Courtesy of Alessi, design by Michael Graves)

Inside the World of Alessi

Hidden away in northern Italy’s lake district, the design factory has influenced the look of American kitchens for decades

smithsonian.com

Tiny, little-known Lago d'Orta—just a mile wide, it lies to the west of Maggiore—is a sleepy European summertime destination, its forested shores peppered with stone-walled medieval villages. But hidden away at the northern end of the lake, above the town of Omegna and its gritty industrial zone, is a temple to modern international design: the Alessi factory.

In 1921, a skilled metalsmith named Giovanni Alessi set up shop here, in an area with a long history of quality wood and metal handicraft. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, the family workshop turned out traditional items for the table and home—coffeepots, bowls, trays, tongs—in copper, brass, and nickel silver.

In the decades since, the company "lab" has married these traditions with forward-thinking ideas, in collaborations with hundreds of international independent designers. Even the most casual observer of housewares will recognize familiar items from the Alessi catalog: an early and classic coffee-shop creamer; a corkscrew with a cutout face, by Alessandro Mendini; a spidery lemon squeezer, by Philippe Starck; a pair of playful salt and pepper shakers with magnetized feet, by Stefano Giovannoni.

Alessi doesn't employ in-house designers, preferring that its creative partners have minds that stay "free.” Scion Alberto Alessi—the grandson of Giovanni, he is the third generation to join the family business—says this is in keeping with “a long chain” of Italian industrial design tradition. What the company does have is an in-house dream team of technical engineers, each specializing in a particular material, who help bring the designs to physical reality.

In the heat of Italian summer, I made a pilgrimage to the factory to find out a bit more of the backstory from Alberto Alessi himself, and from the factory and museum’s historic archive of archetypal housewares. A giant model of the famous Bombé teapot, designed by Alberto’s father, Carlo, in 1945, marks the turnoff from the road. This is the only place where you can view the complete range of the company’s products—many of which reside in the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Centre Pompidou, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—and purchase from the entire current catalog, on display in the enormous factory shop.

“Our job is to be a mediator between the best expressions of creativity and product design and people’s dreams,” Alberto tells me during a chat in his cool, dim office, its long tables cluttered with books and papers and prototypes sent to him from aspiring designers. “That’s why I use the term ‘dream factory’ to talk about what we do.” When Alberto came to the company in the summer of 1970, he became interested in the relationship between people and objects—and in the creation of functional pieces with a point of view, appealing in other, more profound senses than functionality.

Many Alessi products are creations of top American designers. The whimsical Alessi bird whistle tea kettle, designed by architect Michael Graves in 1985, is the company's best-selling item of all time. But when Alessi first approached Graves in 1979, he was a well-known architect who had never before done product design.

The company invited a number of notable architects to work on a brainstorming project called the “Tea and Coffee Piazza”: examining the classic pieces of the coffee and tea service—the teapot, coffeepot, sugar bowl, tray and creamer—as a kind of town square, with the pieces as architectural elements. As a result, 11 limited-edition silver services were produced under the Officina Alessi brand, each bearing the designer’s monogram. The project earned Alessi a new respect in the design world, and two of those architects—Graves and Aldo Rossi—were key design discoveries for Alessi, going on to create iconic kettles, coffee presses and many other items.

The best designers in history, Alberto tells me, have always been architects. Graves, of course, is now a home design authority with a line for Target and countless products for Alessi. Alberto explains that the Alessi method of external collaboration is nothing new—“it’s how Italian design factories have worked for many decades”—but he believes that it is a manner of working that has been lost in today’s industrial design world.

“The door of industry, unfortunately, is now more closed than it was,” Alberto says. “We still try to be a kind of research workshop in the field of applied arts, open to many different influences and collaborations. But we are the last link in a long chain.”

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