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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

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Frank Gehry, Richard Meier and Morphosis studio are all key American design figures who have collaborated with Alessi; of course, non-Americans like Aldo Rossi have also shaped contemporary design through their work for Alessi (Rossi's conical coffee maker was a design stamp of the 1980s). Alessi conducts four to five workshops a year with schools, and recently concluded a project with Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art. Five metalsmithing products from young designers were selected for manufacture in the coming year. “We chose a perforated basket, a flower vase, a fruit holder, a cake stand, and a banana holder.” He pauses, looking quizzical. “There were a lot of students who chose to make banana holders. I think the banana holder must be a very American thing?”

Though there might not be any banana holders yet in the Alessi oeuvre on display at the Museo Alessi, there seems to be just about everything else. Curator Francesca Appiani and team oversee all aspects of the museum, including its collection of prototypes, back-cataloged products and rare graphic pieces that recount the history of Alessi’s cultural identity; Appiani also organizes exhibitions, publications and visits by appointment. The collection is a cross-section of design over the years: a buoyant, eclectic visual history of how the design company and its global collaborators have imagined life in the home. In a testament to its continuing influence, Alessi has pieces in more permanent museum collections than any other design company.

Assistant curator Stefania Ferrari shows me prototypes of a signature 1950s cocktail shaker by design master Carlo Mazzeri, one of the company’s first external collaborators. The shaker has a pleasing, curvy shape, and the chrome-plated brass gives it a nice heft when I hold it in my hand. Appiani tells me that the collaboration with Mazzeri happened quite by accident—at the time, Mazzeri was on site to help expand the Alessi factory. But the cocktail shaker he created became a design icon, today a familiar staple of bartenders all around the world.

Company archives and museums are something of an Italian phenomenon—prominent Italian companies including Alfa Romeo, Barilla, Ferragamo and Peroni all have their own, and there is even an association for them, called Museimpresa. But Appiani tells me that Museo Alessi is its own animal even within the category, a “touchable collection for design students and design addicts” that is open to the public by appointment. It is also a living archive—designers working with Alessi often come to probe through various products to hone in on the materials they’d like to use, and to decide if a solution is possible or not.

“To have a piece in the hand, an object—this is by far the best way to explain a design concept,” Appiani says. “And because everything is organized by typology, you can see the evolution of a product over time. It’s very special.” When I browse the rolling shelves of the museum myself, I marvel at the sheer diversity of objects that have been designed for the company. But I also take note of a kind of exuberance that unites them—a visit to the collection is a unique, simultaneously large- and small-scale viewing of the company’s history and design that would be very difficult to get otherwise. In fact, Alberto tells me that his job is not unlike that of a music organizer or a gallery curator: “I collect and I coordinate.”

When I get up to leave at the end of our visit, he stops me. “Wait—I want to perform a test on you,” he says, rummaging around behind his desk for a moment. “Hold out your hand.” On the tip of my index finger, he places a large, swooping white aluminum dragonfly with outstretched wings; it has been designed so that all of the weight rests on a single point. The dragonfly sways from one side to the other when I move my hand around, but it balances perfectly on my finger.

“It works!” he exclaims, and chuckles. “A couple of young Italian designers brought it by and I just wanted to see if it worked.” We place it back on its wooden pedestal, where it settles, elegantly teetering. There is something simple and joyous about the sculpture that I like very much, and I tell him so.

“You like it?” he asks, smiling. There’s a light in his eye. “I like it, too.” Later, over e-mail, he tells me that the dragonfly will enter the Alessi catalog next year.

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