Beauty born from drab factory

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As a child, Alberto Alessi was not a fan of his grandfather’s place of work.

“I didn’t like the factory at all because it was grey, dark and boring,” he told the New York Times in 2010. “That was my impression”.

Alberto’s grandfather was Giovanni Alessi, a skilled metalsmith, who in 1921 had built a workshop in Arona, northern Italy, in order to produce traditional kitchen utensils. When it came time for Alberto to join the family business, he had his own ideas about the direction in which to take the company. Rather than continue making simple utensils, Alberto commissioned six artists to design something completely new. One of the six, incredibly, was Salvador Dalí.

“The idea was instead of the boring coffee makers, we use the same machines and materials for making art multiples,” Alberto explained. The experiment was not entirely successful, in commercial terms at least, but the concept of doing things differently, and placing a special focus on design, definitely stuck. By the late 1970s, Alberto’s commitment to “fun and aesthetics” really hit its stride when he started to ask designers and architects, many of whom had never before worked in industrial design, to reimagine everyday objects.

It was a stroke a of genius, because the company that Alberto still runs today, called Alessi, has been responsible for more than a few design classics. One is the 9093 stovetop kettle, with a playful bird on its spout that famously whistles as the water boils. Designed by the postmodern architect Michael Graves, and launched in 1985, it is still in production today, and is the company’s bestselling product. Another is the iconic, if not hugely practical, Juicy Salif citrus-squeezer, created by the maverick French designer Philippe Starck in 1990. This can be viewed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and can also be yours to take home for about £50 from John Lewis. Today Alessi works with around 200 independent designers. Many of their newer products, from humble egg cups and corkscrews to walnut openers and salt shakers, still have the capacity to delight. It is a good thing young Alberto found his grandfather’s factory so boring.

By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design