We dove into the history of one of Italy's iconic brands with Alberto Alessi, the company’s current president, to understand how their signature, whimsical products come to be.
For those in the know, the name Alessi calls a host of beloved products to mind. Maybe it’s that ubiquitous wire breadbasket. The bird-whistle teakettle? Or is it that sassy, spidery citrus juicer?
We spoke with Alberto Alessi, the company’s current president, and asked him how those signature, whimsical Alessi products are imagined, how much work goes into creating them, and how its famed designer/architect collabs are determined.
We’ll get to the maestro’s production methods, but first, una piccola storia Italiana…
(Clockwise from left): Kettle (1985) by Michael Graves; Round Wire Basket (1948) by Ufficio Tecnico Alessi; Juicy Salif (1990) by Philippe Starck; Anna G. (1994) by Alessandro Mendini.
Top: Early photo taken outside of Alessi’s original factory in Lago d’Orta.
Bottom: Metalsmiths hard at work inside the Alessi workshop. Photos courtesy of Alessi.
Alessi’s brand is smartly innovative, incredibly chic, and characteristically tongue-in-cheek. That combination is essentially what make this near-century-old Italian company so iconic—and just as relevant to design now as it was back in 1921, when metalsmith Giovanni Alessi first opened his eponymous company’s doors.
Giovanni’s main objective? To machine-make high quality, thoughtfully designed products for everyday use. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he did exactly that, churning out trays, tongs, and bowls in copper, nickel, and silver-plated brass. Back then Alessi produced tableware out of a workshop in Lago d’Orta, a region in Northern Italy’s lake district already known for manufacturing small household items.
Today Giovanni’s grandson Alberto, arguably the brand’s most passionate aficionado, counts many of Alessi’s first designs—like Marianne Brandt’s “two-elements” Bauhaus ashtray from 1926—as his all-time faves.
Left: La Famiglia Alessi pictured with Philippe Starck’s wildly popular Juicy Salif.
Right: The 870 Cocktail Shaker, designed in 1957 by Luigi Massoni and Carlo Mazzeri, is one of Alessi’s first hotel/restaurant pieces (and a consummate bestseller).
By 1955, Carlo Alessi (Giovanni’s son) became the company’s chief designer and acting boss, and Carlo’s brother Ettore organized the company’s first foray into designer collaborations by commingling Alessi’s in-house creatives with independent architects and designers to produce modern, functional wares it would then market to upscale restaurants and hotels.
Left: Scion Alberto Alessi enjoying a cigar, as captured by Mads Mogensen.
Right: The Alessi factory today in Omegna, Italy.
In 1970, Carlo’s son Alberto became the third-generation Alessi to take the company’s reins. Trained as an industrial designer, Alberto, too, facilitated critical collabs with furniture and lighting designer Achille Castiglioni, famed Italian-Modernist Ettore Sottsass, and the Munich-born Richard Sapper, and later, with seminal architects Philippe Starck, Michael Graves, and Zaha Hadid.
Hundreds of stainless-steel Michael Graves’ bird-whistle kettles on their way to market.
Today, Alberto refers to Alessi as the “dream factory,” an umbrella term that describes the company’s production formula, mission, and overarching philosophy of collaboration. The phrase also represents its resolve to create sumptuous, whimsical, stylish, and functional goods. (It’s also the title of a book Alberto authored late last year, entitled The Dream Factory: Alessi Since 1921 (Rizzoli).
“We like to believe that we’re creating products that accompany people throughout their lives,” says Alberto. Just as his forebears have done, Alberto, too, takes care to green light only those designs that convey an inherent sense of time and place. “In every new project,” Alberto adds, “my mission is to try to express the true spirit of the time in which it’s being created.”
The basic form and cutouts featured in Alessi’s Girotondo fruit bowl (1993, designed by King-Kong) is manufactured via the company’s traditional cold-working method.
Since its inception, Alessi has been manufacturing most of its products via the traditional cold-working method (strengthening metal by bending it without the use of heat) in its original plant in Northern Italy.
Ideas for new Alessi products are typically generated by the company itself—based on perceived need in the marketplace—and by designers who approach Alessi with concepts. “It’s a 50/50 split,” says Alberto.
Usually, the development of a new concept takes between 12 and 24 months from its initial presentation to Alessi to its official market release. While prototypes are being created, Alberto conducts 8 to 10 check-ins to verify quality and accuracy.
Alessi’s network of 300-plus architects and designers is rather small, considering it generates 60 to 80 products at any one time. Alessi himself selects the person most appropriate for the job—and roughly 40 to 50 designers from its network generate those 60 to 80 products. Alberto explains, “I’ll choose a specific designer based on whether we want the product to make a big impact, or if function and price are more instrumental.”
Alberto also loves Alessi’s Pulcina espresso maker (2015, designed by Michele De Lucchi), because, “I believe it’s an artful, poetic expression of its time,” he says.
Alessi has expanded its catalog beyond metal and kitchenware: From electrical appliances and porcelain figurines to wooden wall clocks and resin picnic baskets, Alessi now offers nearly anything home related. “I think of these products like they’re archaeological finds from another time, ready to be discovered by future explorers, says Alberto.
As for which types of products the Italian design giant is cooking up next, Alberto stayed mum…except to say, “A trash trolley,” before adding the quintessentially cheeky Alessi contrition, “But maybe I mentioned it too soon.”