Alberto Alessi belongs to the third generation of one of the world’s great family dynasties in design. For over 40 years he has been at the center of managing the business and strategic affairs of Alessi S.p.A.—known for bringing innovative design to housewares—as well as coordinating the company’s product development relationships with notable architects and designers from around the world. He answered some questions from Designers & Books about his book list and about his life, which has had design at its center.
Designers & Books: In the introduction to your book list you say that designers should first be poets. Can you tell us who some of your favorite poets are—and are there any that you think designers should be particularly familiar with?
Alberto Alessi: Italians from the mid-20th century: Salvatore Quasimodo, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Umberto Saba, Eugenio Montale, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. I think every designer should have a personal list, although poetry is not usually taught in design schools.
D&B: You describe designer Alessandro Mendini as your “main maestro.” When did you first meet him—and could you tell right away that he was going to have a big impact on your life?
AA: We first met in 1977 when Alessi was one of the publishers of the design magazine Modo and Alessandro the editor. I asked him to do some historical research on Alessi’s production history and to give me some suggestions on what we could do in the future to improve our strategy and design direction. The reason Alessandro is important to me is because he is not only an architect and designer but also a kind of philosopher-anthropologist, with a wider spectrum of thinking than that of a traditional architect.
D&B: You have worked with the top designers from Italy and also from all corners of the world. When you think about all those personalities and all those perspectives, from designer to designer, are they more similar or different in how they think and approach design? And in particular, what about the Italians? Is there an “Italian way” of approaching design?
AA: Italians are different, but they are also different from one another. Every good architect or designer envisions design as a poetic and artistic discipline, but also has his own unique approach. As an example, I give you two quotations from two Italian design maestros— the “paranoiac” Enzo Mari, and the “metanoiac” Stefano Giovannoni.
Enzo Mari: “When I see a product of mine selling really well I begin to think it can’t be a good design.”
Stefano Giovannoni: “Really and truly, what do the public want? Do people want to have fun, feel a little joy and happiness, however fleeting? Okay, I’ll give it to them.”
The exhibition I curated called “Dream Factories: People, Ideas, and Paradoxes of Italian Design,” now on view (through February 2012) at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan, explores these kinds of ideas.
D&B: You indicate in your comment on Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s book that you are a fan of the idea of learning from failures. Can you tell us about your biggest failure—the one that taught you the most?
AA: Philippe Starck’s “Hot Bertaa” water kettle (1990) showed me where the line was between success and failure. Conceived during the first Gulf War, the kettle looks like a howitzer shell. It is pierced by a handle-spout that looks like an arrow. In its initial phase the project was wrapped in an aura of mysticism. The preliminary drawings had a Latin inscription running around the base. At Alessi it is generally referred to as “the kettle that doesn’t work.” It is famously impractical—the main reason for its status as a flop. Seen by Starck as his worst design ever, it is one of the most interesting examples of a work on the very borderline between form and function to be developed in Alessi’s history.
D&B: We admire the way you look at design as a cultural imperative. Of the many design objects you have been responsible for overseeing and bringing to market, which one do you consider to be your greatest cultural accomplishment and contribution?
AA: The design project called Tea and Coffee Piazza, initiated by Alessandro Mendini (1979–83). In 1979, Mendini came up with the idea of giving “pure” architects the task of designing a common household item—the classic tea and coffee service. We adopted and developed this concept of an architectural multiple or “limited edition,”with contributions from an international array of architects, including Michael Graves, Hans Hollein, Charles Jencks, Richard Meier, Aldo Rossi, Paolo Portoghesi, Stanley Tigerman, Oscar Tusquets, Robert Venturi, Kazumasa Yamashita, and, of course, Alessandro Mendini. Tea and Coffee Piazza was a major contribution to the evolution of Italian design—it permanently changed it.
D&B: Are you a book collector? How many books in your personal library?
AA: About 5,000, the majority being books on the history of my beloved “cradle” formed by Lake Orta, Lake Maggiore, and the Ossola Valley in the northeastern Piedmont region of Italy.
D&B: What three books are your favorites as “design objects”—based on cover treatment, illustrations, choice of paper, and other design elements?
AA: Antonio Finazzi’s L’oracolo della Sibilla Cusiana (The Oracle of the Cusiana Sybil), first published by Palma (Naples) in 1835, with an eighth edition by Angelo Monti (Milan) in 1855; Ettore Sottsass’s Esercizio Formale (Formal Exercise), published by Alessi (1979); and Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black), published by La Plèiade (1982).
D&B: What are you currently reading? And what’s next on your list?
AA: Il Monte Calvario di Domodossola (“The Sacred Mountain of Domodossola”), a guide to a pilgrimage place in “my” mountains that I never read. But it’s so boring. When I’ll recover from that I’ll tell you what’s next!
D&B: You’ve traveled around the world many times, and in those travels we are sure you’ve visited many bookstores. What are some of your favorites that you always make it a point to visit?
AA: I’m partial to all bookstores, no matter what their “flavor.” But if you really want a name, then I would have to say the Payot bookstore in Sion, Switzerland—which is made even more pleasant by the dry air coming from the Valais mountains, the fragrance of cheese fondue, and the availability of Fendant (Swiss white wine). Still, I prefer the content (the books) to the container (the bookstore)!