Alessi has become the most renowned Italian manufacturer of household products by transforming the public’s perception of basic items used in the home. Their coffee makers, corkscrews and juicers have transcended functional use and become whimsical objects of desire, proudly displayed like fine art.
The company was founded in 1921 by Giovanni Alessi, near Lago d’Orta in the Italian Alps, an area traditionally strong in metal craftwork. Upon the arrival of Giovanni’s son, Carlo Alessi, a trained industrial designer, the company started pursuing original designs beyond fabricating everyday objects. One of Carlo's best creations was the Bombé coffee and tea service, which quickly became recognized for its simple and sensuous forms.
During the post-War economic boom, Ettore Alessi, Carlo's brother, joined the firm as a technician. His main contribution was to supplement in-house creative work with independent designers to fashion modern products for restaurants and hotels. A prime example of this effort was the iconic Programme 4. That line’s cocktail shaker and tabletop serving items are still in service today in many upmarket bars and restaurants around the world.
While Alessi grew into an internationally renowned firm during the 1970s, with a catalog of well-designed and crafted products, another generation of the family began working with the firm. Carlo's son, Alberto Alessi (who later took over as CEO and still heads the company), brought in new creative energies by starting a long-term collaboration with some of Italy’s best-known industrial designers, such as Alessandro Mendini, Ettore Sottsass and Achille Castiglioni.
A particularly successful relationship with Richard Sapper, the Munich-born industrial designer working in Milan, resulted in such famous products as the 9090 espresso maker (winner of the 1979 Compasso d'Oro, the most prestigious Italian design award) and the two-tone whistle kettle Melodic (1983). Another highly innovative program started by Alberto Alessi and Sapper, well before the current culture of celebrity chefs, was the Cintura di Orione, which produced high-end pots and pans working in concert with world-class chefs (including Raymond Thuilier, the grandfather of French cuisine, Pierre and Michel Troisgros, the Lyon-based masters of Nouvelle Cuisine, and Gualtiero Marchesi, the star of modern Italian cooking).
Then, riding the post-modernist wave, Alessi raised the stakes again, by spearheading design collaborations with famous architects, including Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Aldo Rossi, Paolo Portoghesi and Robert Venturi. The result was Tea & Coffee Piazza (1983), a limited edition collection produced in silver - a first for the company. The success of this project fostered the development of several mass-produced, highly successful designs, such as Aldo Rossi’s La cupola and La conica coffee makers, and Michael Graves’s Kettle with bird and Mantel clock.
The stable of world-class designers working with Alessi grew to include Phillippe Starck, Andrea Branzi, Marcel Wanders, Ron Arad, Mario Botta and many others (the company has formed partnerships with more than 500 independent creative professionals over the years). A signature design from the 1990s is the three-legged juicer by Starck,Juicy Salif, one of the company's best selling items to date. Other iconic products from that period are Mendini'sAnna G corkscrew, Branzi's Mama-ò kettle, and Botta's Mia and Tua pitchers.
At the turn of the new century, the firm began producing a growing catalog of whimsical objects in materials other than metal, such as plastics, gels and woods, in a riot of colors. A new generation of designers, including Biagio Cisotti, Stefano Giovannoni and Karim Rashid have been at the forefront of this movement, with Cisotti’s amusing Diabolix or ‘Little Devil’ Bottle Opener, Giovannoni’s Merdolino toilet brush and Rashid’s Kaj wristwatch. Alessi has also revived its design program with architects, launching in 2004 Tea & Coffee Towers, with designs by Zaha Hadid, Toyo Ito and Jean Nouvel, among others.
More recently, the company has started developing larger families of objects, based on a single basic shape or research idea, such as the Marli aerodynamic collection by Steven Blaess (ranging from bottle openers to baskets, fruit holders, wall hooks and key rings), the Cactus line in perforated metal by Marta Sansoni (including mugs, glass jars, trays, bowls, baskets, napkin holders, trivets, etc.), and the Orientales Monkey & Banana series by Stefano Giovannoni (the result of an ongoing collaboration with the National Palace Museum of Taiwan on various products with Asian themes).
Today Alessi offers cutlery, glass, china, tea and coffee sets; kettles, coffee machines and electrical appliances; pots, pans and kitchen knives; home, bar, wine, kitchen and bathroom accessories; clocks, watches and jewellery; office, desktop and even pet objects. The catalog is divided into three different lines: Alessi, the main collection; A di Alessi, with more affordable designs; and Officina Alessi, featuring limited-edition series and more experimental pieces.
The company has continued to foster innovation by partnering with design schools, museums and publishers. Many of its creations have entered the design collections of major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Alberto Alessi travels widely to lead seminars and address conferences around the world. In the last few years the company has expanded its retail network with almost three dozen mono-brand stores, including a New York flagship in SoHo .