Backed by decades of success with established designers, Alberto Alessi ventures into uncharted territory
Donna Paul -- Interior Design, 11/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Alberto Alessi's namesake company has worked with design superstars to manufacture household objects for nearly four decades, and those years of collaborations have produced such iconic items as the 1978 olive-and-vinegar cruets by Ettore Sottsass, the 1985 Whistling Bird kettle by Michael Graves, the 1990 Juicy Salif tripod lemon squeezer by Philippe Starck, and literally thousands more. But this who's who of design doesn't tell the entire Alessi story. Driven by both practical concerns and lyrical musings, the product-design impresario has also made a point of cultivating newcomers with promise.
When did Alessi add young designers to its roster of established architects and designers?
We opened our doors to young designers in the early 1990s. I felt it was my moral responsibility not to give the impression of being closed in our ivory tower. I was—and I am—convinced that it's impossible for the same people to always feel the spirit of the times.
Are you now sent proposals regularly?
Last year we received 350 proposals.
How do you identify new talent?
That's another story—it's very difficult. Every year, there are thousands of graduates from design and architecture schools, and only one or two will come to the forefront. In a decade, I work with a hundred new designers. Of those, perhaps 50 go to production.
Aside from the proposals, how do you find your new designers?
We have several ways. One is through Centro Studio Alessi, started in 1991 to focus on research and new design. Another is that every year we organize several workshops with architecture and design schools all over the world. The third way is through the maestros—Alessandro Mendini, Andrea Branzi, Ettore Sottsass, or Richard Sapper—suggesting names to me.
Can you be specific?
Stefano Giovannoni and Guido Venturini were working together in the mid-1980s, as a team called King Kong, when they were brought to me by Mendini. Without knowing anything about Alessi, they presented a book of ideas: sketches and drawings. It was very exciting. So I thought they were the right people to spend some time with. I gave them a tour of the factory and the company. Then I told them that half of what was in their book was out of the question for us.
What made you think that?
Technical reasons. So they returned with a book with more refined ideas, more appropriate for Alessi. I selected one project.
The round tray with the little men cut out of it, Girontondo.
That tray is still being produced. How were you able to predict its popularity?
Sometimes I fail, actually. In my opinion, that's very positive. I've developed a theory, which I call the theory of the borderline, to explain my flops. I think it's essential for Alessi to have at least one fiasco every year.
How fascinating. Can you explain?
The theory separates the area of the "possible" from the area of the "not possible." The "possible" is represented by new projects, new ideas, that customers will accept, understand, and buy. The "not possible" is represented by projects and ideas that customers are not ready for. The borderline between the two is not clearly marked. You cannot see it with your own eyes. You cannot understand it with the help of market research. You can only feel it with intuition and sensibility.
With a concept so nebulous, how do you take a new designer to the borderline?
It's natural for good designers to work on the borderline. My job is to help them not to go to the other side. Working close to the borderline with Michael Graves, we discovered his teakettle, with Aldo Rossi his coffeemaker. But when Philippe Starck made his Hot Bertaa kettle, which was a very big flop—one of the most important flops of the past 10 years—I had a flash of seeing for a few seconds where the borderline was.
You aren't an architect yourself. Do you modify the proposals?
No, I'm a manager. I just ask for or suggest changes. The designer is free to accept the suggestions or not. We never modify anything without the consent of the designer.
Then you're like a film producer or director, guiding and editing.
Again, much depends on the individual. The example you suggest of the filmmaker is very appropriate. We mediate the best expressions of creativity to match them with customer dreams, meaning the market.
Let's talk about customer dreams.
We are all driven by our dreams. My point of view is that people do not need anything more. All needs have already been fulfilled. But there is an area without limits, which is the imagery of our dreams.
How does this translate into our everyday lives?
Beautifully designed objects fulfill our desire for art and poetry.