When the Tea and Coffee Piazza was introduced to the US by the Max Protetch Gallery in the early 1980s, followed quickly by the appearance of the Michael Graves Whistling Teakettle in the Speigel catalogue, it was clear that a new way of doing business was also introduced to America. Metalsmiths took notice, architects, designers, consumers and a few in industry also took notice. Was Alessi S.p.A.’s “design as good business” a fashionable phenomenon of the sometimes decadent Postmodern 1980s, or an enduring utopian philosophy from which American industry and craft artists could derive a model for producing objects with significance for the popular market? Who or what was the catalyst for the company’s innovative experiment? Why were we as craft artists simultaneously optimistic and distressed?
Alberto Alessi is one of two general managers of Alessi, S.p.A. an Italian producer of “design” kitchen utensils and tableware. The products of Alessi S.p.A. have helped that company become one of the most recognized Italian design firms in the world. At the present time the company has over two thousand different products in their catalogues. Mr. Alessi oversees design management, communication and strategic marketing.
In 1993 he was invited to address the Society of North American Goldsmiths Conference in Cincinnati where he held the audience’s rapt attention as he advanced his theories concerning the role of and the future of design factories in the late twentieth century. Alessi clarified what makes his (and the company’s) philosophies and theories of applied art unique, important, and viable on a global scale.
After his July speech in Cincinnati, Alessi participated in the Master Silversmithing Workshops held at the Royal Academy and St. Lucas Institute in Antwerp, Belgium, August 30 – September 8, 1993, first and foremost as one of the Directors of the workshops and secondarily, as a fledging silversmith, raising his first silver bowl under the tutelage of master Flemish silversmith and professor, Jean Lemmens. Here Alessi attempted to present a workshop project to a group of twenty European silversmiths, ranging from students, to professors, to studio silversmiths, exactly as he would to his industrial designers with the premise:
“I believe that it is the right time to say that ‘market/society’ is ready to accept a new order of the different ways of production. I mean a new order, enlarged and enriched to make place for other ways of production which are different from the only way of mass production. In this new order there will be a place not only for the Design Factories (for which my company is an example) but also for the high quality metalsmithing tradition.”
Excerpted here are only a few of the points and ideas which were contained in his expansive presentation. While admittedly brief and fragmentary, I hope that these excerpts suggest the breadth and the somewhat revolutionary nature of his talk. Furthermore, reading these quotes in concert with Susan Ewing’s article may help readers contextualize Ms. Ewing’s investigation into the relevance of mass and industrial production. Additionally the ideas touched on herein may well serve as points of departure for many discussions about the varied roles of metalsmith today. [Editor]
With the American consumer market for manufactured metal hollowware and flatware products, especially those produced in sterling silver, faltering during the 1980s, the silver crisis of 1979 was certainly only one part of the problem. The American tabletop industry typically has relied on traditional forms, such as the Queen Anne style and the Paul Revere bowl – viewing itself as marketing exclusively to women, ages 18 to 45, who “buy what their mothers like”, according to Colby Lunt of Lunt Silversmiths. Johanna O’Kelley, then Vice-President for Marketing at the Kirk Stieff Company confirmed that “the industry didn’t look at the market, it didn’t look ahead…it didn’t upgrade, or gradually change equipment, therefore it couldn’t respond to the major shift in the market…” and that” …Alessi produces housewares, but is so far ahead of [the] silver [industry]…”
Since the early 1970s, the Italian firm of Alessi S.p.A. has been a leader in the tabletop industry, one recognized for introducing finely designed and crafted objects at a scale never seen before in the world market. Subsequent to the 1983 introduction of the project symbolically called Tea and Coffee Piazza which began in 1979, Alessi products have set new standards for industrial design. Some of the production pieces that evolved from the limited edition Tea and Coffee Piazza series such as the Michael Graves “kettle with a little bird-shaped whistle” of 1985 and the Aldo Rossi La Conica Espresso coffee makers of 1984 and Il Conico tea kettle of 1986, have become icons of a new consumerism and the decade’s cult of the celebrity.
In the ten years since their introduction, the designs by two world renowned architects from opposite spectra of the profession, have moved from objects purchased initially for their name recognition, to best sellers in Alessi’s already well-established catalogue, to objets d’art and culture used as props in advertisements by others. The Alessi process is one in contrast to the typical mass-market company’s approach, such as we find in the United States; theirs is also a process which can serve as model. What is apparent from the range of projects currently in production and from those about to enter into production, is that the Alessi firm is most interested in broadening its market base by producing objects within a wide range of prices and with a different aesthetic focus.
Excerpts from Alberto Alessi’s Address At SNAG 1993
In the main, the mass production industry keeps producing simply to satisfy people’s needs instead of paying more attention to their wishes and desires. The final goal of a producer is to make people a little happier and maybe a little more aware of their choices. It has become clear to me that my activity, even if it was always as a producer, was different from that of the so called Mass Production Industry.
At Alessi we clearly understand that people buy our coffee makers and our kettles less because they have to make coffee and boil water and more for other reasons. It is these reasons that I am interested in investigating.
At Alessi we find ourselves operating in a system where the functional characteristics of the objects which we make were acquired some time ago and it is nearly impossible to introduce important functional innovations. So the functional aspect exists but it is physiologically intrinsic to the projects. I am convinced that there are other important aspects to be explored, not only the aesthetic aspect but also [those aspects] which I define as anthropological, thus my latest interests have focused on semiology and psychology.
Objects have become a major channel by which we communicate with others information about our values, our status, our personality. The possession and use of objects is essentially an exchange of cultural and social meanings. People, through the free choice of objects surrounding them, tend to give to objects important social meanings, as signs to communicate, in a visible and intelligible way, the values of the individual. Objects serve as signs of status or standing. I’m convinced that people tend to use objects as a means to satisfy a hidden, big need for Art and Poetry, a need which is no longer exclusively fulfilled in a suitable way by the classic instruments of the art museum or poetry in books.
I find myself very far from one of the main characteristics, but also one of the most worrying consequences of mass production: the refusal to take risks. One the contrary, to take risks is a physiological element of Alessi S.p.A.’s activity. Not to take risks means that products inevitably tend to become more and more homogeneous, their relative markets get saturated and consequently the mass production industry becomes more and more troubled.
It has become clear to me that towards the end of this century two main ways to look at Design seem to be emerging, two kinds of visions very different and sometimes contradictory. On one side, there is the interpretation of design peculiar to Mass Production Industries, namely design looked at as a marketing and technological tool. This interpretation tends to reduce the role of design to simply a tool to help industry produce more rapidly and at lower costs, or to produce more functional products, or even to improve the look of products simply to encourage people to buy. This is a “gastronomic” vision of design, where design is looked at as a sort of spice, a seasoning to make our food tastier, to make our products more interesting.
Yet, this definition of design practice limits the design to simply being one of many marketing and technological tools. It is not, however, sufficient to explain the complex phenomenon of design today, nor to explain where design is going in the coming years. Moreover, the results of this attitude toward design seems to be a world of anonymous products, boring objects usually without emotions and without poetry.
And here I come to the second way to look at design, very peculiar and close to the phenomenon of the Italian Design Factories I refer to a historical number of companies which primarily developed in the post-war period. These companies, generally private, aiming at profits, of course, acting in a capitalistic society producing and selling goods to consumers, and very attentive to the relation between costs and benefits, are very conscious of the fact that they live and act in a context of material culture, in a daily comparison with what we call Applied Art.
According to these companies, design is – let me use an exaggerated expression – a Mission. And it concerns itself less and less with the simple, formal production of an object. On the contrary it has become a sort of general philosophy or Weltauschauung, affecting all the decisions of these companies.
Applied Art is a century old theme. Since the Industrial Revolution it has become a topical theme, in particular during the second half of the last century, after the polemics engaged by the Englishmen John Ruskin and William Morris, and the Arts & Crafts movement and against the growth of the mass production.
The fresh commercial alternatives which Alessi presents to the American public illustrate and emphasize the vast chasm between American and Italian tabletop design philosophy. Alessi, the antithesis of American industry in all regards, i.e., design, manufacturing and marketing, is phenomenal not just for providing an interesting product for the consumer, but more importantly for its unorthodox use of research on the role of contemporary creative culture and its needs. What the Alessi company has done within the tabletop industry has not gone unnoticed in the United States. Peter Fuhrman, writing in Forbes magazine observes that “The secret of Alessi’s success is nothing clandestine but a lesson many big American companies had learned and since forgot: It is not just what a product does that counts but also what the product adds to the customer’s self-image…” while Charles Gandee, in House and Garden, comments that”…what Alberto Alessi does in Italy is enlist the best design talent in the world to reinvent such domestic essentials as coffee makers and salt shakers, cheese graters and frying pans…” and states: “His American competitors would do well to take note…”
The beginning of Alessi S.p.A.’s current rise in designed consumer products is directly tied to the start of Alberto Alessi’s participation in his family’s business in 1970. Trained as a lawyer at the University of Milan, Alberto Alessi was asked to join his father Carlo (President of Alessi S.p.A.), his uncle Ettore (Vice President), his brothers Alessio and Michele and his cousin Stefano in running the family business started by the grandfather, Giovanni Alessi in 1921. He agreed, knowing that he could bring a new perspective: “…I was thinking that we were living in a society where all the relevant material needs are fulfilled by the production of objects, but the Big Mass Production Industry didn’t seem to have understood it (sic).” His initial effort, the production of unlimited art multiples, as he readily confesses, was too utopian and a huge failure. There have been other memorable failures, among those utensils for the hotel trade (part of the Programma 5) by Ettore Sottsass and metal containers for Alitalia by Joe Colombo and Ambrogio Pozzi. However, Alberto Alessi has remained undeterred and, from the beginning of his tenure with the company, has consistently brought in leading designers to invigorate the production of the firm.
In the mid-1970s, Alberto Alessi initiated a series of design projects which today form the nucleus of the production philosophy for which the firm has been recognized worldwide. As a way to differentiate between the traditional product lines and those more experimental or prototypical, the company introduced a new trademark in 1983, OFFICINA ALESSI, which Alberto Alessi explains permits the traditional segment of the firm to maintain its own clear identity; this also allows each to develop its own persona and focus on its own market. Within the OFFICINA ALESSI trademark, the Alessi firm identifies seven groups of projects or “programs” to focus each on a specific philosophical direction, including the Antologia Alessi (reintroducing some of the more significant previously produced designs, including his father, Carlo Alessi’s Bombé Coffee Set, 1945-46), the Tea & Coffee Piazza (initiated in 1979 as the Programma 6), La Tavola di Babele (continuing since 1983 with such notable objects as the cruet set by Castiglioni (1984), as well as the recent juicer (1989) and the Max le chinois colander (1990) by Frenchman Philippe Starck), and Archivi, a program of historical reproductions (1985). Others have since followed, such as Twergi (1988) Tendentse (1990) and the recent Family Follows Fiction (1993), forming the basis for diversification and explorations in materials other than metal, including plastics, wood, glass and porcelain.
Unlike Alessi S.p.A.’s American counterparts, where design is nearly exclusively an “in-house” operation, with management and marketing controlling design, all of Alessi’s product designs and designers since the 1970s are commissioned externally. There are early precedents in the Alessi S.p.A. catalogue for objects designed outside the factory, such as the 1959 cocktail shaker by Luigi Massoni and Carlo Mazzeri and various objects by Anselmo Vitale that are part of the Programma 4, and examples in the mass production catalogues including the Boston shaker and accessories by Ettore Sottsass (1979), and the 1981 Dry flatware set by Achille Castiglioni (initially commissioned by Reed and Barton, but not produced). Alberto summarizes the essence of the Italian Design Factories, comparable companies such as Cassina, Artflex, Artemide, Flos and Danese, as “risk-takers who go by their nose, make decisions by the heart, and minimize their risk through limited production runs…contrary to American ‘good’ business philosophy.”
Morris: writer, painter, artist, entrepreneur, and design ante litteram, argued against the industry of his times producing bad taste and bad quality products, in contrast with the handicraft production which, in his opinion, was more spontaneous, of higher quality and more careful regarding the artistic and cultural aspect. In the following century, design seen as Art and Poetry took on other important forms and aspects from the Arts & Crafts in England and America in the second part of the last century. I should mention the brilliant tradition of the Chicago Metalsmiths, the Kalo shop, the Jarvie shop and so on, to the Wiener Werkstatte in Vienna at the beginning of our century, to the German Deutscher Verkbund, to the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau in the Twenties, to the Ulm School in the Fifties, up the phenomenon of the Italian Design Factories, born in the post-war years.
In my opinion we may consider the Italian Design Factories including Alessi S.p.A., as the spiritual heirs of these creative and intellectual movements which have been oriented toward the production of objects, but with very strong cultural and intellectual features.
At Alessi we believe our real nature is like a research lab in the Applied Art field. A lab in the Applied Arts where there is an endless mediation between the most advanced expressions of the creative culture and the public’s requirements and dreams. A lab which must be characterized by an openness to the world of creation and for which the techniques offered by modern marketing are not enough. And here we are at a punctum dolens, a possible point of friction between Design as a Global Creative Discipline and Marketing as a Science founded on statistics. This point of friction may lie in the “Transgressing Component” which is in my opinion a historical constant of Italian Design.
The concept of “transgression” implies the concept of “rule”. The rule-system in which industrial enterprises operate can be divided into three groups: the technical-functional rules (which regulate the material production of objects), the socio-economic and marketing rules (which regulate the entry of objects on the market) and the aesthetic and communicative rules (which regulate the comprehension and the acceptance of objects by people). But a “rule system” also implies a static vision of the world and probably – in the case of industry – a strong brake to evolution.
I believe that an excessive attention to the aforementioned rules is leading to a progressive, dramatic fall in the creative intensity in the production of many great international industries. I believe a moderate, pleasant, transgression of the rules, a fights against rules, be they technological, marketing oriented, or aesthetic is not only acceptable, but is even hoped for.
This “Transgression Component”, this acceptance of the risk linked to the transgression of rules is one of the most typical features of the Italian Design Factories. This reading allows an interpretation of our design history as the ability to bring technology to the utmost stress and mastery such as that found in Gio Ponti’s super-light chair: Cassina, Carlo Mollino’s work, or Franco Albini’s furniture for Artflex, and the objects by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper for Brionvega and Artemide.
Designers’ proposals are evaluated for clarity of design, semiotic value, the technical complexity of production, and the projected price – all in relation to Alberto’s recently developed “Formula for Success,” to determine how to proceed with a particular project. At specific stages, each proposal is reviewed, beginning from the initial design proposal, through prototype development, to the final decision whether to proceed with production. Decisions are made by a committee of eight, composed of the three Alessi brothers, Alberto (the General Manager for Marketing, Communication and Design Management), Michele (General Manager for Finance), and Alessio (in charge of marketing operations); together with the Technical Manager (who determines production feasibility), the Editions Manager (who oversees all production outside the main Alessi factory in Crusinallo which is exclusively cold pressed steel), the Production Manager, and the Director of the Centro Studi Alessi (the design research center) in Milan, Laura Polinoro. Alessandro Mendini also contributes to project decisions as a continuing consultant to the firm.
The company’s philosophy concerning new products is instructive. While clearly the “bottom line” must be of concern, Alberto Alessi recognizes that society, (the consumer market) is much more complex and sophisticated than the mass production industry believes, and that mass marketing “experts” follow a myopic and elementary vision. He passionately believes that the quality of the applied arts produced by Alessi S.p.A. comes before all else, that the integrity of his philosophy is most important, and that “design as only a marketing and production tool is wrong.” As a result, although the business of making money appears to be of secondary importance even if it is obviously a reality in order to continue operations, Alessi S.p.A. accepts taking much greater risk with its products, an approach which is honored by very few industries.
The decisions to introduce or not introduce a new line are not based on the typical market driven formula. The definition of what Alessi S.p.A. terms “successful” and the time frame for achieving success are very untraditional. In explaining both the approach and the success of the company, Alberto Alessi is resolute in explaining that he applies the “transgressing component,” that is, the acceptance of risk against the three conventional rules of the marketplace. Industry typically makes decisions based on its ability to manufacture a product (the technical or functional rule), on identifying the segment of the market that most likely would purchase this product (the socio-economic and marketing rule), and on the product’s design and symbolism (the aesthetic or communicative rule).
Rather, for Alessi S.p.A., the project decisions are made based on a mathematical formula developed in recent years by Alberto Alessi, who designed it when he was challenged by his brothers to rationalize the opinions he was reaching intuitively. The “Formula for Success” as he describes it, contains four criteria which are rated on a scale of 1 to 5: SMI (sensuality, memory and imagery), CL (communication an language), F (function or practicality), and P (price, particularly in relation to other similar objects in the catalog). The sum of the four scores is then used to inform the designers in the beginning stages of any project as to the viability of a solution and is ultimately used to decide whether Alessi S.p.A. introduces a new product into its catalog. The first criterion, SMI, is based on the symbolic reading of the proposed product, and for this Dr. Alessi relies on psychoanalytic theories formulated by Franco Fornari and David W. Winnicott which explain the meaning and unconscious effect of the objects. Fornari’s “Theory of Affective Codes” explains why we desire an object; whereas Winnicott’s “Theory of Transitional Phenomenons” explains how we give meanings to objects, how we come to associate them with specific values and therefore how they are archetypal. The application of these theories goes well beyond defining success for a new product, they are essential components of the company’s intellectual philosophy.
The successful application of the formula allows Alessi to pursue an aggressive program, introducing some forty new projects each year, a 100 percent increase since 1987, some with multiple elements (a coffee set is considered one project though it may contain four individual pieces; the numerous place settings and serving pieces for flatware are similarly considered a single project), while maintaining a catalogue of more than 2000 objects. The commitment to the product transcends financial success – no product is ever discontinued from the catalogue.
In his studies on transitional objects British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott has identified a zone situated between dreams and reality, halfway between things perceived and things conceived neither inside nor outside the individual, which he called the “Area of Transitional Phenomena.”
The objects that populate this area – the transitional ones: games, teddy-bears, Linus’s blanket – are for the child a sort of magic representation of the happy sphere in which he was joined to his mother: “…to these objects the child attaches himself while sleeping, to find comfort, an image of her which he can keep by him all the time, evoking the reassuring unity with his mother…and in this way the transitional objects produces the effect of obtaining precisely what it had set out to deny: it enables the mother to go out while the child keeps her close to him symbolically.”
Winnicott refers to the area of children’s play, which begins from the child’s first experience with the use of transitional objects and games but also expands far beyond it, and continues in the adult’s creative and entire cultural life. He thinks that the “Area of the Transitional Phenomena” continues in the intense experience we find in religion, in all forms of artistic creation and fruition, and also in scientific, creative work. The child’s transitional object thus yields its fruition as it dilates and divides and merges into the vast range of transitional phenomena (and objects) with which human life is populated.
So I put forward the hypothesis that also Design is a transitional phenomenon.
Winnicott points out how the transitional object is not regressive but evolutionary, because “…with its existence it helps the child to grow: seeing that in the course of growth he will be less and less able to keep his mother with him all the time, he will in exchange be able to keep the blanket for himself [or teddy-bear, etc. all those objects which are for him a reassuring metaphor for his mother’s breast], and as he gradually learns to recognize his existence as separate.”
Another question is: why do we desire an object? What is the relation between function and emotion?
According to Franco Fornari, two kinds of meanings are constantly present in language: the “Order of the Day” (which refers to cognitive data, critical-rational thought and reality, which he calls “Reason/Function”), and the “Order of the Night” (a sort of phylogenetic language common to all men regardless of the geographic-historical-cultural conditions, which refers to affective matters and to an oneiric process of communication and of knowing the world, which he calls “Affections Emotions”).
The mental place of consumption should be sought in the area of experience situated between dreams and reality, (the same seems true for Winnicott), between the state of day and the state of night in a kind of endless contradiction; a contradiction which takes place whenever we must make a purchasing choice, and a process of which we are never fully conscious.
This second shadowy zone (Affection/Emotions) is predominated by fantasy and daydreams. Vigilant thought is temporarily held in check. Criticism and control are reduced whilst affective representations relating to the symbolic universe of dreams emerge. They are unconscious prescriptions, as it were, to which the affections are anchored: a minimal, ideogrammatic vocabulary that allows our affections to be transformed into representations, into real things.
In following Fornati, I maintain that our own choices are predominated – much more than is commonly supposed – by the structures of symbolic-affective thought, Affections/Emotions as opposed to those of logical-cognitive thought Reason/Function.
As producers we are lucky. Our business brings new examples to our attention all the time, represented by the projects developed by us over the years, and this history urges us to keep the success of previous projects still on the market under observation. By clinically examining these projects a number of interesting examples can be spotted which allow us to move forward. I mention three such cases drawn from our history:
Ettore Sottsass’s, olive-oil cruets designed in 1976, in my view clearly point up the code of erotic corporeity. After fifteen years of observation, I maintain that the elegantly phallic shape of his glass cruets is one of the key elements behind the international success of this design.
Achille Castiglioni’s “desire to play” is strongly in evidence in a large number of his creations and this seems to me to relate to the child-code. Thus the gimmick in his cruets of 1984, (with the balancing lid which opens and closes by itself when the cruet is tilted) or the opening-closing component of the edge of his prototype tray of 1982, suggest to me the appearing-disappearing referred to by Baudrillard when he quotes Freud’s observations on the “cotton-reel game” and on the tendency to repetition found in traumatic neuroses, in analytical transfers and in particular cases of children’s play.
Yet the rise of the Alessi line as exemplar of the new industrial production for the home has not been without criticism, including from the metalsmithing profession. In his review of the Tea and Coffee Piazza limited edition products which were designed by an international group of architects, but produced by anonymous artisan silversmiths, Kurt Matzdorf laments that the company did not use metalsmiths to design the prototypes. Others, such as Harriete Berman in her speech at the 1993 Society of North American Goldsmiths conference where Alessi also spoke, similarly have misinterpreted this Northern Italian company’s approach to design and production as well as the cultural environment within which it operates. Implicit in the criticism is the assumption that the Italian metalsmith’s training and background are congruent to that of the post-war, university trained crafts artist in the United States, which is not the case. While metalsmiths in this country mostly come from a fine arts background within an academic context, in Italy the training is generally still as an artisan through an apprenticeship in a shop, so the designs produced by individuals taught in this manner are restricted to the true and tried concepts of the master craftsman under whom the apprentice studied.
On the other hand, in Europe (and particularly in Italy) designers typically study within architecture programs and hold the title of architect, and so most of the best known Italian industrial designers, from Ettore Sottsass, Alessandro Mendini and Achille Castiglioni, to the King Kong group, are architects by training: Sottsass, a member of Studio Alchimia from 1979 to 1981 and founder of the Memphis group, studied at the Polytechnic in Turin and is known for among other things his designs for Olivetti; Mendini studied in Milan, and has been a driving force in Studio Alchimia, and at various times editor of the journals Casabella, Domus and Modo, which he also established; Castiglioni also studied as an architect at the Polytechnic in Milan. Therefore, when Mendini curated “the group” for Tea and Coffee Piazza, his selection of architects as the designers for new forms of silver coffee and tea services was a logical and correct cultural choice. At that time and place in the development of the company’s evolving philosophy to achieve the international press attention and therefore market recognition, not just any architects would do, global notoriety was a necessity. Even silversmith/designers trained as architects (like the Italians Gabriele DeVecchi in Milan or Aldo Vitali in Rome) could not attain what needed to be accomplished by the company in the early 1980s.
When I think of the reiterated use of the horn icon, or of the enigmatic, ambiguous, yet so keenly desired, objects like the Juicy Salif Lemon-Squeezer and the Mr. Meu-Meu Cheese-Dish, by Philippe Starck, it seems to me that the word “Beauty” manifestly fails to describe them, and that the right term should be sought instead, in the realms of “Perturbance-Uneasiness-Fear.” His work strikes the inner chords which, in my view come into connection with the most difficult and dangerous of affective codes. Indeed Starck seems to me to be an ever more daring tightrope-walker, grappling with the great mystery of the affections, and in particular with the code of life and death.
I know full well that with my work I am answering not so much a primary need but more a desire for happiness felt by people, through the paradoxical dimension of our artifacts. One can, after all, turn on a light, boil water, make coffee or tea, sprinkle salt and pepper, crack nuts and clean by relying on methods more common than those shown here.
When we discuss the role, the nature, and the future of the industry the focal point of the matter is that, I believe, the whole industrial system runs the risk of making a world of objects too ordinary, too boring, and without emotions and this at a historical moment when people, finally free from the hindrances of a conservative culture and from the admonitions of the Modern Movement, could achieve their desire for Art and Poetry in all the events of their life.
We, the Italian Design Factories, don’t agree with the role the Mass Production Industry tends to force upon design. We believe that to look at design simply as marketing is too reductive an interpretation.
I’m convinced that, be it for external reasons provoked by the constant changes the world around us undergoes, or for a physiological growing and maturation process of its own, design is now entitled to a kind of historical option: i.e. to conquer its own specific, independent slot within the spectrum of plastic arts.
Design, true design isn’t easy to handle, it always provokes a sort of unsettlement of habits and of certainties in the industrial environment, because it often raises questions and poses problems which, in a way, disturb us (at the very moment that we are busy with more important activities, such as manufacturing, selling, paying, being paid, etceteras). But these disturbances and the answers that result, if we are able to find them, can also improve the general environment, an improvement which is not only cultural or aesthetic but very often technical and market oriented as well. In short, these disturbances may offer solutions which are often unforeseeable and not programmable.
It would be too easy to finish by saying that the only right way is the one of design factories. But since Alessi is one of these factories and I know it well, I can assure you that this industry also has its share of problems.
Thinking about my activity for example, I point out that we always tend to work in a natural way I’d say, in a zone of people’s wishes. Our mission to explore the Possibile Creativo drives us to look for some ways which don’t yet exist, to reach people’s hearts, to always move on the enigmatic boundary line between what may become real (that is to say objects really loved and owned by people) and what will never become realized (objects too far from what people are ready for or wish to use).
Our vision may become virtual, by addressing a limited market and we may end up with products which could become progressively too difficult for ordinary people, products destined only for the design aficionados and the early adopters.
But I’m still convinced that it is necessary for the industrial culture to recognize and accept the enormous possibilities that the Possibile Creativo offers.
I’d like to put forward a hypothesis, again with the help of the Theory of the Affective codes by Franco Fornari. In the last years of his life, Fornari tried to apply this theory to human organizations. He asserted that at the center of a balanced, functioning human group there is a so-called “Inner Good Family”. In this Inner Good Family, i., order to balance the unconscious decisions of individuals and the survival of the group, there exists a structure of family codes: in particular the paternal code and the maternal code.
Fornari observed the strong contradiction between the ideological and cultural model used for Production. Productive individuals are thought to be frugal, moderate, laborious, temperate, and strong. On the other hand, individuals as consumers are greedy, immoderate, leisure-oriented, extravagant, and thoughtless.
For all that Alberto Alessi and Alessi S.p.A. achieved during the 1980s in developing an innovative new order in design and marketing, it also succeeded in perpetuating the ‘boys’ club’ of architecture, design, and business, by excluding any women from design and management for the firm. With the onset of the nineties, however, a long overdue new era for women began. In 1990, Laura Polinoro, a semiologist educated in Bologna, was appointed Director of the new Centro Studi Alesi in Milan, charged with screening new design talent and directing assigned projects, such as Form Follows Fiction; she is also a member of the company’s operating board. And finally, there was the project on the theme of “offering-serving-caring-giving,” designated Memory Containers and initiated by Alberto Alessi for an international roster of young women industrial designers, including Americans Lisa Krohn and Marta Davis, and British designers, Claire Brass and Joanna Lyle. Fortunately for the future of women designers at Alessi, several objects form the project line have generated positive critical interest and commercial success.
Still, what makes the firm of interest to the metalsmithing profession most of all, was and remain Alessi’s underlying attitude, a passionate philosophy concerning the role of objects. In an essay introducing one of the many self-published monographs on the Alessi line, Alberto Alessi writes:
“I am not interested in the disordered and irrational spread of consumer goods. What I am interested in is the possibility of offering people ‘good’ objects, objects that do not alienate…objects which explore the possibility of the harmonious composition of the two ideological and cultural models that weight upon every one of us…What I want is to be able to contribute to the recognition, on the part of consumers, of the power that exists in the promise of happiness… We must learn to play with our dreams and our fetishes…”
Commissioned by Alessi to explore his dreams and fetishes, Riccardo Dalisi, a Neapolitan architect and sculptor, has spent more than a decade experimenting with the typology of the traditional tin Neapolitan coffeepot, a unique cultural icon of the Italian city’s daily life – designing dozens of animated copper, brass and tin studies, produced by Don Vincenzo, an artisan metalsmith in Naples. Although the project and commission officially ended in 1987 with the introduction of Dalisi’s conservative stainless steel interpretation into the Alessi line, Dalisi’s original inspiration and coffee maker fantasy continues, evidenced by the arrival of a dozen more Knights on Shiny Coffeepots at Alberto Alessi’s office in March 1994.
Although commercially less successful than other Alessi projects, the archival series Archivi (begun in 1985), which includes Marianne Brandt designs licensed by the Bauhaus-Archiv, designs by the nineteenth century English botanist Christopher Dresser, and a samovar tea set by Finnish Architect Eliel Saarinen, is meritorious for presenting important historical objects in sterling silver, in steel, or in both materials, which speak with a contemporary spirit to the unresolved dialogue between art, craft and industry. The British silversmith Brian Asquith, whose shop is described as an “ideal model of craft and industry working together,” has been commissioned by Alessi S.p.A. to produce the sterling silver Christopher Dresser pieces that are part of the OFFICINA ALESSI catalogue. Asquith acknowledges that “Alberto Alessi is a very unusual industrialist, even by Italian standards. He is very interested in the craft origins of England’s industrial heritage…” Until Alessi none of the Archivi designs had historically ever been produced beyond prototypes.
By 1987, Alberto Alessi presented the beginning of his idea for a “new metals order,” an idea which he predicted could be realized by the end of this century. In outlining his vision for an experimental new program, he proposed that “destructuralization” of the industrial process is the trend of the future. Looking for the creative spirit in design, that is, the essence of the individual spirit, he could anticipate looking beyond the industrial designer and the architect, and eventually to the metalsmith. He was not looking to find a new Arts and Crafts movement, something like a new Wiener Werkstätte or a new Bauhaus, but a new movement where industry is the patron, the protagonist for a developing story.
The paternal code, characterized by growth, diligence, desire for prestige, social success, and social performance, and also a certain superficiality, corresponds to the ideological model of the producer and could apply to the Mass Production Industry. If it were to dominate it would direct the market towards performance, business, and money as its exclusive ends.
On the opposite end, the maternal code, which is centered on beauty, lightness, renewal, comprehension, and availability to satisfy needs is, in a certain way, a check to the child code of onsumer culture. The maternal code brings a certain hostility towards technology and business, offering, instead, the Arcadian myth of the omnipotence of nature and imagination.
The history of the Applied Arts is a history of the exploration of the territory which is situated between the Possible and Real, between the Order of the day and the Order of the night. I strongly believe our role in this history will be fundamental because I see in our future that the progress of our society will only be played out in a continuous dynamic dialectic between business and culture.
This is the reason why we continue on our way, even if that way is difficult, complicated, and often contradictory, trying to build our positive utopia, conscious that the consumer society will probably not be the last stage of the society in which we live. My Utopia is to encourage growth towards more and more evolved models of life, where products will have less importance and humans will have much more.
Alessi, Alberto: Not in production, next to production. Crusinallo: F.A.O. S.p.A., 1988.
Centro Studi Alessi: F.F.F.: Family Follows Fiction Workshop 1991/1993. Crusinallo: F.A.O. S.p.A., 1993.
Dormer, Peter: Design Since 1945. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993.
Julier, Guy: The Thames and Hudson Encyclopedia of 20th Century Design and Designers. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993.
Officina Alessi: Tea & Coffee Piazza. Crusinallo: F.A.O. S.p.A., 1983.
Officina Alessi: Riccardo Dalisi: La Caffettiera e Pulcinella. Cursinallo: F.A.O. S.p.A., 1987.
Polinoro, Laura (editor): Rebus sic….Crusinallo: F.A.O. S.p.A., 1991.
Polinoro, Laura: L’officina Alessi; Alberto Alessi e Alessandro Mendini: dieci anni di progetto, 1980-1990. Crusinallo: F.A.O. spa, 1989.
Scarzella, Patrizia: From Project to Product. Crusinallo: F.A.O. S.p.A., 1985.
Scarzella, Patrizia: Steel and Style. Crusinallo: F.A.O. S.p.A., 1987.
Thackara, John (editor): Design After Modernism; Beyond the Object. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988.
Bodine, Sarah, and Michael Dunas: “The Tabletop Landscape,” in Metropolis, vol. 6, no. 3 (October 1986), 52-58, 75, 77, 79.
Boym, Constantin: “Popular Design,” in Metropolis vol. 13, no. 6 (January/February 1994), 38.
Burden, Marc: “Sources of Inspiration,” in Crafts, no. 126 (January/February 1994), 47.
Doveil, Frida: “Per una nuova utilità; Vogliamo oggetti con un’anima,” in Modo, no. 149 (May 1993), 55.
Fuhrman, Peter: “You are what you cook with,” in Forbes, vol. 146, no. 14 (December 24, 1990), 46, 48.
Gandee, Charles: “Gandee at large: Alberto Alessi has design on your house,” in House and Garden (April 1990) 230.
Jacobs, Karrie: “Prototype; Alberto Alessi and the Women,” in Metropolis, vol. 11, no. 7 (March 1992), 82.
Matzdorf, Kurt: “Architecture in Silver,” in Metalsmith, vol. 4, no. 2 (Spring 1984), 36-38.
Talarico, Lita: “Alessi S.p.A.,” in Graphis vol. 47, no. 272 (March/April 1991), 60-77.
More important, Alessi established the foundation for an experiment into a collaborative new relationship with contemporary crafts, one which as a model for a new arts and crafts movement, could help reinvigorate tired industries which provide little choice to the consumer, and could respond to what is obviously on awakening desire by consumers to have available products which not only satisfy their functional needs but also their desire for aesthetic, cultural objects. Alberto Alessi’s vision is not without precedent. Peter Dormer, in the essay “The ideal world and Vermeer’s little lacemaker”, voices a parallel observation about the 1970s when he writes:
“In the 1950s and 1960s the crafts were supported by ordinary householders, not by museums…It was a practice which enabled the reintroduction of texture, colour, variety of form into homes at a period (1945-1970 and beyond) when the mores of contemporary design appeared to deny these ingredients or, worse, when manufacturing companies across the world palmed the consumer off with poor finishes and indifferent forms…”
In Alberto’s utopian fantasy for working with metalsmiths, envisioned developing a villa on a hilltop overlooking Lake Orta not too far and not too close to the factory, complete with a silversmithing studio and research center – a place where artists could come and create prototypes for Alessi S.p.A., and then return to their private workshops, commissioned to make the production of their own designs, not wholly unlike Brian Asquith’s production of Dresser’s designs.
However, Alessi learned from his Antwerp experience that metalsmiths generally don’t create so well outside of their own studios, lacking their usual tools and materials; that not all metalsmiths are capable or interested in developing technically producible or commercially viable designs; and that finding the ‘right’ metalsmiths for an Alessi project will be much like finding the ‘right’ architects more than a decade ago.
With Alessi S.p.A.’s, strong and unwavering commitment to its visionary General Manager for Marketing, Communication, and Design Management pushing the limits of industrial production for the tabletop, challenging the stereotypical notion of what consumers want, what can be produced, how and why, then perhaps Alberto Alessi can have his “personal, possible positive utopia for the next millennium.” When Kurt Matzdorf, in discussing Richard Meier’s Tea & Coffee Piazza set states: “How much better Helen Shirk would have handled this problem, it becomes conceivable that there will yet be an occasion to find out.
Susan Ewing is Professor of Art, Head of the Jewelry Design and Metalsmithing program, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Gerardo Brown-Manrique is a registered architect and Professor of Architecture, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.
The research for this article was conducted by Susan Ewing beginning in 1986, and was made possible by generous grants from the Ohio State Board of Regents “Research Challenge,” and Miami University: Richard T. Farmer School of Business Administration Dolibois Faculty Development Grant, School of Fine Arts Academic Excellence Grant, and the Research Advisory Committee’s Shoupp Award.
Interview with Colby Lunt, Lunt Silversmiths, Greenfield, Massachusetts (May, 1986).
Interview with Johanna O’Kelley, Kirk Stieff Co., Baltimore, Maryland (June 2, 1987).
For example, Graves’s teapots appear in the Miele Co. and Wolfe Ranges advertisement for their new line of stoves, as well as background elements in advertisements for furniture and finish materials.
Peter Fuhrman, “You are what you cook with,” Forbes, (December 24, 1990), 48.
Charles Gandee, “Gandee at large: Alberto Alessi has design on your house,” House and Garden, (April 1990), 230.
Alessi, “My personal, possible Positive Utopia for the next millennium…” (transcript), SNAG conference (June 1993).
These entries are found in the catalogue “Not in production, next to production”.
Interview I with Alberto Alessi, Crusinallo, Italy (June 24, 1987).
Lecture I by Alberto Alessi, Antwerp, Belgium (August 30, 1993).
Lecture I, Alessi, Antwerp (Ibid.).
Interview I, Alessi, Crusinallo (op. cit.).
Alessi, SNAG conference, (op, cit.).
Lecture II by Alberto Alessi, Antwerp, Belgium (August 31, 1993).
Interview III with Alberto Alessi, Crusinallo, Italy (March 15, 1994).
Kurt Matzdorf, “Architecture in Silver”, Metalsmith, (Spring 1984), 36-38.
See Metropolis, vol. 13, no. 6 (January/February 1994), 38.
Alberto Alessi, “Towards an awareness of the things we buy,” in Laura Polinoro (editor): Rebus sic…, 6.
Benedetto Gravagnuolo (from Casa Vogue, V/1984), “Riccardo Dalisi,” in Officina Alessi, Crusinallo: F.A.O. S.p.A., 1994.
Quoted from Marc Burden: “Sources of Inspiration,” in Crafts, no. 126 (January/February 1994), 47.
“Sources of Inspiration” (Ibid.).
Interview I, Alessi, Crusinallo (op. cit.).
Peter Dormer, “The ideal world of Vermeer’s little lacemaker,” in Design After Modernism, 138.
Interview II with Alberto Alessi, Antwerp, Belgium (September 8, 1993).
Matzdorf, (op cit.), 37.