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Head of the table

With an annual turnover of €100m and the world’s best designers onboard, family-run design firm Alessi reigns supreme in our homes. Jenny Dalton talks to its new president, Alberto Alessi – the ‘perfect provocateur’. Portrait by Guido Castagnoli.

December 04 2010
Jenny Dalton

Alberto Alessi is standing at the top of the tower of his just-finished house, surveying his vineyard below and explaining the theory behind biodynamic viniculture. In this hillside location overlooking Lake Orta in northern Italy, the more delicate Pinot Noir grapes grow on the slopes below the farmhouse, which has been renovated by Atelier Mendini. Behind and to the side are the Chardonnay crops. This vineyard is Alessi’s passion, and his distraction from boredom (his greatest fear).

What might have started as a hobby – in fact, just a suggestion to his wife Laura, who didn’t want an OTT formal garden – has become a serious undertaking. Now Alberto and Laura have an office at home, from where they run the business that will launch its first Vin de Table in 2013. Laura tends the cellar with one full-time employee, plus there’s the oenologist and agronomist consultants, and the “French old man” – Jacques Mell of Reims, who has overseen the development of the fledgling vineyard on the suggestion of Nicola Joly, a French ambassador of biodynamic growing methods.

But wait; this biodynamic theory sounds a little kooky. According to its philosophy, you can only harvest on certain days of the year at certain times of the day, depending on where the moon and constellations are. Alessi quotes a biodynamic wine “story”: take two bottles produced in exactly the same way, at exactly the same time with exactly the same grapes, and two Post-it notes. Write “words of love” on one of the Post-its and “negative words” on the other, stick them both on the side of the bottles and leave to mature: the one with the positive message on the side will taste infinitely better.

Does this 63-year-old head of an internationally successful tableware design company – whose turnover this year is expected to total €100m and which retails in more than 60 countries around the world – really believe all this? “I’d like to believe it,” says Alessi with a smile. “I haven’t tried the Post-it experiment, but I will have to. Of course, there’s no way I could write anything negative about my own wine,” he laughs, and goes on to say that he can’t remember exactly why he decided to try the biodynamic method. He thinks it’s because he thought it would be less work. “I was wrong,” he says, ruefully.

Nonetheless, this is an unexpected revelation from the man who – following the death of his father, Carlo Alessi, last year – is the newly crowned president of Alessi, and who has just been awarded the prestigious Abitare il Tempo design prize previously awarded to Ettore Sottsass and Vico Magistretti, two of the most significant designers of the last century.

But Alberto Alessi is full of revelations today. His house has been designed with the help of a feng shui practitioner. He chain-smokes Cigarillos despite acknowledging the health warning on the tin. And during the nine years this house has been in the planning, he lived with Laura – his second wife – and his now nine-year-old daughter Emma in a tiny flat overlooking Lake Maggiore, where the kitchen was about half the size of his current dining table.

And even this house – which you might expect to be all glass and modernist lines – is, despite its size, a modest-feeling farmhouse that suits the surrounding landscape of Orta and was purposely designed to feel just like their intimate flat. “It’s not our style to live in a big, bourgeois villa,” says Alberto, who it turns out is not big on show. In fact, when the French Bouroullec brothers describe their new Ovale dinner service (their first work for Alessi) as “striving to be original, but also rustic and traditional”, they could be describing the very man who commissioned them.

Currently, Alberto Alessi is big on patience. It’s a quality he has learnt in his past few seasons of grape growing and the quality that, more than any other, he has needed to flourish over the past three decades as the creative head of Alessi, the famous kitchen and dining accessories firm we all feel we know and a bit of which most of us own.

“I have come to realise quite recently that I have to be ‘the good gardener’ in more ways than one,” he says. “In design we rely on nature too – it’s just that ‘nature’ is the designers themselves. We depend on their talents, and we don’t necessarily have control…” In fact, of Alessi’s staggering 100 new offerings this year, most of them weren’t planned for release now. “They were ready. When a project’s ready it pops to the top.”

But Alessi’s equilibrium has clearly been hard earnt.The man who has the ultimate “yes” or “no” over every new creative offering appears to be the opposite of the young law graduate his father put to work in the family business – begun by his grandfather Giovanni in 1921.

For now, says Alessi, the patience is necessary because although family firms are still commonplace in Italy, to have such a large number of family members working together (relatively) harmoniously is fairly unusual.

As the current count stands, Alberto’s two brothers, Michele and Alessio, and his cousin Stefano work together as managing directors, and his 83-year-old uncle Ettore is also on the board of directors. His nephew Matteo, trade marketing and international development director, was the first of the fourth generation to enter the family firm. (There are 14 children in the fourth generation, but the majority of the rest are as yet too young to join the company.) Notwithstanding, each family member is a shareholder too. “When it comes to the shares, there are so many of us now,” sighs Alessi, who suspects the company as is won’t remain a sustainable formula. There will be too many cooks to spoil the Alessi broth. But Alberto is not unduly worried.

“It’s difficult to predict human behaviour. But honestly, I don’t care what happens,” he says, “because it won’t be dramatic, it will fall away quite naturally.”

For now, he is focused on his new and next launches. Some are subtle and almost silent additions to the now vast Alessi catalogue – which spans items costing from £10 to £10,000 (and that doesn’t include the affiliate Alessi bathrooms and kitchens, IlBagnoAlessi and LaCucina Alessi) – such as the new PJ02 Chop bamboo chopping board by Patrick Jouin (£34), with a clever concave side so you can slip what you’ve chopped onto a plate under the overhanging lip. Blip is a “discreet” steel spoon rest (£13) whose shape alludes to the wave formed by a drop in water. Others are more obviously what Alberto Alessi refers to as “commercial art” – a quality he has striven to offer in the higher end of the Alessi oeuvre – such as the Andrea Branzi nutcracker (£59) that features a figurative squirrel crushing arm.

“One hundred is really too many products,” Alessi admits in another revelation. “At the moment I’m interested in Serge Latouche’s theory that ‘de-growth is serenity’. It is based on the consideration that our behaviour as managers is naïve. We were always told that every year you have to imagine growing five per cent or more, when we know our world is finite, not infinite. I would actually prefer it if the company were smaller – I could have everything more under control.”

Such a move may be desirable for Alberto Alessi, but he fears it is too radical for his shareholders to approve. But it appears the senior Alessi is (and always has been) in the mood for radical.

He is quite open about the conflicts of being the most maverick member of the company of which he is head. Never keen to enter the family business but aware he would be required to “from a very early age”, he made it his mission to rebel. Even now, his eyes light up when asked about his projects that never made it to the light of full production. One such, started with Salvador Dalí in the 1970s, was famously cut short by his father. The young Alberto invited a number of artists to produce completely free “art” pieces for the company to help differentiate Alessi from the other producers of tableware of its day.

The resulting piece from Dalí was a folded stainless-steel sheet pinned together by a metal peg. There’s a prototype in the Alessi museum – on the site of the factory at Omegna – along with a photo album of a bearded, leather-trouser-clad Alberto with the camera-ready Dalí, and it is clearly still a point of contention that Alberto was never allowed to finish it. “It was a big fight. I was a bit crazy but not that dangerous to the company,” he says now. “I don’t know if it would have been a success or a fiasco,” his smooth feathers ruffled temporarily.

What becomes clear is that, firstly, his father only softened his anxiousness about Alberto’s wilder streak towards the end of his life, and secondly, if it weren’t for the shackles of the Alessi family structure, Alberto Alessi would have a whole different company on his hands.

When I ask if he finds his current design offerings not radical enough, his “yes” is as quick as a flash.

And when I point out that for many people Alessi signifies the cartoonish character-driven designs (often in plastic or porcelain) by industrial designer Stefano Giovannoni, or the new cute but banal Christmas porcelain figurines collection designed by Massimo Giacon, he is, shall we say, not entirely pleased. “I never consider them as having the same weight [as the classic designs],” he says, referring to the cult Michael Graves and Richard Sapper kettles. “If it were down to me, we would not produce them – I could easily live without them.”

And yet, Alberto isn’t arrogant enough to think Alessi is just him. He acknowledges the team behind him (of around 500), his head of design, his family, the hundreds of designers on his go-to list, which is a roll call of the world’s best product designers, from Zaha Hadid to Matali Crasset via Enzo Mari and Martí Guixé.

But is there anyone else who could do what Alessi does? And this is, according to designer Jasper Morrison – who has worked with him on several “classics”, such as the simple yet elegant KnifeForkSpoon flatware (from £19) – “understanding that design needed to become more eclectic to meet the demands of a mass market. Until he began working with Philippe Starck, Stefano Giovannoni and Mendini, the design world mostly made things for other designers and a few fans. This intuition and his interest in the functional, everyday performance of a product, are the reasons for the phenomenal growth of the company over the past 25 years.”

It is a view shared by architect and design maestro Alessandro Mendini himself – now in his 80s, but still actively working – who has been collaborating with the company for over 30 years. He states that although every Alessi member is “filled with history”, it is Alberto who is “the ideal industrialist. He is the perfect provocateur. Alberto is the charismatic point, the undisputed element of culture and brilliance.” He is, continues Mendini, “the subjective centre of the company’s internal eloquence – the one who dreams of happy seasons, social utopia and enchanted objects.”

He is also prepared to go to considerable lengths to achieve a certain “difference” within the Alessi products – differences that can be easily overlooked until, for example, you witness the Alessi commitment to handcraft at its cold-pressed metal specialist factory or realise the extra effort and cost that goes into producing the melodic whistling spout of the Richard Sapper 9091 kettle (£148) in a small workshop in the Black Forest. Or the research that goes into ensuring the ultimate in function in each piece (the infamous Philippe Starck lemon squeezer apart), including the critique of a Jasper Morrison set of serving dishes that suggested reducing the radius between the side and the base of the dish by 2mm to allow peas to be more easily collected with a serving spoon.

It has impressed a couple of generations of consumers too. I first met Alberto Alessi a decade ago, when, in the midst of buoyant commercial times, he was keen on consolidating Alessi’s newfound supremacy at the forefront of an unprecedented domestic design trend (the 1990s, he tells me, was a period of 10 to 15 per cent annual growth). To some extent, he admits, the years since then have involved following a successful formula.

This new decade, however, he sees as a completely different creature. While recession has not wildly affected the company’s sales, which still rely on middle Europe for most of its business, Alessi feels a need for reappraisal and a renewed daring. “I’m calling this decade Ethical and Radical,” he says. “Ethical because we need to be closer to the needs of society, to strive for simplicity. For example, a new series of pans we’ve created with Naoto Fukasawa [price on request] are incredibly minimalist, and are all a family of four should need, or, my current favourite, the wire A Tempo baskets by Pauline Deltour [£26-£58], which are almost spartan.

“Radical meaning the opposite. This may be something like the Marcel Wanders porcelain tableware that we’re launching next year.” Or maybe the new Tab electronic home hub (currently available in Italy, but launching in the UK in 2011, price on request) – an e-information source of news, recipes etc, because, as Alessi sees it, “I don’t believe design in electronics is at its best yet.”

These projects all excite Alessi, who admits that after all these years – and his temperamental start – he loves the work too much to give it up (and there’s always that niggling fear of boredom). He is positive about the future even if he doesn’t feel “completely free. If I were it would be a different story. But I still have a bit of hope.”

Indeed he does. Next year, in the range of miniatures – mini collectables of the most popular and historical Alessi designs, whose details are as fine as the original size product – Alessi will feature, yes really, that highly contentious steel Salvador Dalí sculpture. When I ask what his father might think of that, there’s a heavy pause that says, “Well, what do you think?”

See also

People, Interview, Alessi