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Alberto Alessi Sounds Off on the Company’s Biggest Design Disasters

The Italian design master shares behind-the-scenes dish on the challenges of wrangling big egos, such as Starck, Sapper, and Mari.

Alberto Alessi Sounds Off on the Company’s Biggest Design Disasters

For all his giant reputation in the design industry, Alberto Alessi is actually a shy man, more comfortable sitting on the terrace with a cigar and a few close friends than working a room. He’s not all that comfortable speaking English, and not fond of travel, preferring to stay at his newly renovated house near Lake Orta, north of Milan, tending his vineyards of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes.

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So his recent tour of the U.S. was a challenge, with hordes of Alessi groupies rushing forward with cameras, business cards, and portfolios after every talk, eager to make contact with the man who, perhaps more than any other, has defined Italian product design in the late 21st century. Unfailingly gracious, he endured it all with good humor and boundless patience.

The final stop on a tour that took him from Milwaukee to Philadelphia (where he launched a new show, “Alessi: Ethical and Radical” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) ) to New York, ended at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, where he revealed his mischievous side with a slide-show and talk on the highs — and lows — of his storied company. And he demonstrated that, like his best designers, he’s a man “who can truly smell the spirit of his times.”

[Richard Sapper’s famed Alessi Kettle]

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On the famous Richard Sapper 9091 Kettle (which Alessi ‘played’ for the audience):

Sapper wanted to design a kettle that was multi-sensorial. He wanted the spout to make a melody when the water boiled that sounded like the steamboats on the river near his family home in a village near Stuttgart. We worked for a year and a half, and couldn’t do it. One year later, Sapper’s sister discovered an artisan who produced valves that made the perfect musical note, “la.” It wasn’t what Sapper really wanted. Germans are hard to change. But we found a way to do the valves in “mi” and “si,” and he finally accepted a compromise. The kettle is still in production. But if the water you use has a lot of lime, the pipes oxidize and it won’t work anymore. You can still make tea, but not with the music.”

On his own “big idea” to do limited edition products that were more art than design — like a project with Dali that involved dozens of fish hooks mounted on wood, but no obvious function.

It was a big fiasco. Customers showed no interest in my work. My father stopped me from doing any more. We still have 50,000 of those in stock somewhere.

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[Dali brandishes his fish hooks mounted on wood]

[Mendini’s Anna G corkscrew]

On Alessandro Mendini:

Mendini was always proud to design things that didn’t sell. He thought that showed that he was too sophisticated for the public. But he made the mistake of his life when he designed the “Anna G.” corkscrew which became an Alessi best-seller for more than 20 years.

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[Rossi’s square pot, for square vegetables]

On Aldo Rossi:

Rossi’s square pot for Alessi was his homage to the Mies van der Rohe idea that form should follow function. This pot was perfect for boiling cubic tomatoes.

On Philippe Starck (showing a picture of Starck in his 20s, and a picture of him today):

Perhaps this is the miracle of surgery, but time is passing for Starck in not the same way as the rest of us.

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On Starck’s famous “Hot Bertaa” teakettle (pictured above):

This is Starck’s kettle that is famous for not working. Every year, we get some Japanese customers who want us to produce it. We don’t.

On Enzo Mari‘s green campaign:

Mari thought that Alessi should prove its green credentials by producing a vase out of recycled plastic bottles. But by the time we figured out how to do it, it was clear the value was not enough to cover its production costs. So instead we published a little instruction booklet that told you how to produce the vase yourself. It comes with a label that you can attach, so you can say you have a real Enzo Mari vase by Alessi.

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[A sketch by Michael Graves, of the tea kettle that remains one of Alessi’s best-selling pieces of all time]

On his approach to the next decade:

In the next decade, we’re trying to be both ethical and radical. Two opposite poles. We’re trying to be more ethical with our new simplicity, and more radical by being more free toward the expressiveness of our designers.

On taking risks:

We operate on a borderline theory. We try to live on the edge between the possible and the not possible: between projects that are new and popular, and projects that people won’t understand. The border isn’t clearly marked, and we can’t fill it with market research. We rely on our own sensibilities, our own intuition, and unlike most companies, we take risks. The companies that don’t, become homogeneous and boring and unpoetic. If you can go up to the borderline without falling in, you can create a market that will be beneficial for your company and make a good contribution to consumer society.

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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