An afternoon with Alberto Alessi

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Alberto Alessi arrives at our meeting in his office in Crusinallo, by the shores of Lake Orta in Italy, a little breathless. He spent the whole morning working in his vinyard that, he says, in a couple of years will provide an excellent wine. He wears black baggy trousers and a tshirt, coupled with a pair of sandals and it’s clear that he would rather be in the open air than in an airconditioned place. Like everything the Alessi owner does, also wine is first and foremost a passion. Or, rather, it stems from one, but it will soon enough turn into a business.  «That’s what I wish», says Alessi – whose big blue eyes, despite the 66 birthdays, never fail to display, not even for one second,  the light of enthusiasm –, «I started off a few years ago yet I have not sold anything yet: nature has its flow and getting to quality requires time». Not only nature: the wine Alessi made in 2009, for instance, has been ready for a while but he has not yet bottled it. «I designed the bottle myself but there was issues with its production (when you will see it you will understand, it’s rather unusual): I certainly could not use any bottle!».

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If you are wondering about what a company producing houseware (born in 1921 and specialized in products manufactured through cold metal printing) has to do with wine the answer is simple: nothing.  But what it stems from – passion – has on the contrary a lot to do with the factor that determined Alessi’s success worldwide (with a turnover of roughly 100 million euros, 500 employees and a top brand awareness): this is where the desire to bet and find new businesses comes from.  In the last 12 yars, Alessi has created, in partnership with various companies: kitchens, bathrooms, pens, telephones, fabrics, barbecues… Recently lamps and, in the near future (Mr Alessi tells me) home furniture complements.

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«We work with companies that excel in their sector and that can benefit from associating with us in terms of branding: as a matter of fact we do the creative direction and brand management for such projects». As a real entrepreneur, Alessi is equally attracted by the challenge as he is to admit the defeat:  «some projects have worked, others did not. It does not matter, we do something else», he says. What, also in a time like today? «It’s always been like this», confesses Alessi while showing me (in  the company museum) the amounts of prototypes that never saw the (commercial) light.  «I would say that on average only 40% of items that we bring to pre-development lands on the market. And not all of them are successes».

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It is so refreshing to talk to a person who says things as they are, and refuses to hide behind convenient pr-driven statements. It is also – I am aware – a clever communication strategy because thanks to this Mr Alessi convinces me immediately that he is a great entrepreneur, one of those who truly made the difference in Italy by risking and being well aware of it, without ever giving up. Many times, during the conversation, he admits that he has «very little interest for market research and analysis» and, rather, great trust in his own flare and unconditioned love to beauty. A method for selecting projects, during the pre product development phase actually exists. «I have developed– only because it was requested by the company and many wanted to know why some items would sell more than others – a system of analysis that helps us in the evaluation process and in assesting the commercial p0tential of a project. It is based on marking 4 criteria: function, aesthetics, status communication, price.

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«Each object can receive a maximum of 5 points in each box. Nothing ever got 20 marks. One that collects 18 will sell approximately 100,000 pieces.  One that scores 12 will not reach production». It all sounds very «corporate» and with a certain scientific allure but it is just an impression. «We mark projects ourselves», smiles Alessi. As if to say that his taste, at the end, always counts a lot, even if «a veto from collaborators has a specific weight  that is getting higher and higher. At the moment, for instance, Alessi is battling inside his own company to bring to production a series of wooden spoons designed by a famous Italian designer (we agreed on being quiet about the name): I see them in his studio and they are stunning. The problem lies in the fact that they should be produced by the «gratagamul della val di cazzuji»: the craftsmen specialized in the making of wooden spoons in the Valle Strona. You have probably never heard of them. Most people haven’t. They live in semi-isolation in the little villages by Omegna, where Alessi is located. Alberto Alessi adores them. He shows me pictures of women who come down to the Omegna market on Thursdays, charged with items for sale; of their machines, that  they use for carving wood; of their faces, that seem to come out from another era.  «I would really like to go ahead with this project. Maybe we will have to reach some sort of compromise, the working of some of these shapes is not easy for those people». It’s not the dollar sign that I can see in his eyes but that of the love for his land, its traditions and the simple beauty of small things. After all, his grandfather Giovanni, who founded the company, came from those very valley and he was the last of a generation of craftsmen specialized in working metal.

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«The crisis has touched it, obviously. But we resist quite well», he says. It’s been thanks to a policy that drove them to differentiate the offer through three brands (Officina Alessi, Alessi e A di Alessi), providing a various degree of experimentation, quantity of items produced and price; and through the exercises beyond the core business in partnership with others. «Until the 80s, there were those who loved design and could afford it. Then, starting from the 90s, the middle class became richer and design became the dream of many. This is when we grew, and very very fast. We are now 500 in the company, and this obviously has a cost. Today, the crisis hits not the very rich but that very middle class that helped up arrive here. Of course we suffer. But we keep going». Possibly risking a little less? He looks at me with a funny glance: clearly, he reckons I am mad. «Obviously not. But we certainly cannot just do trays and teapots. Try making one that’s really new every 6 months: it’s not easy. Yet it’s necessary in our business because, also as far as best sellers go, there is always a physiological fall in the sales after a few years and inserting new proposals is a necessary condition to stay in business. Rather, we optimize resources and focus on working metal (which has always been our specialty) and on exporting parts of the production. There is no need to hide behind a spoon: it would be impossible to survive while doing everything in Italy. But I have never got rid of any of our collaborators: they are extremely precious». The locals thank. In Omegna, beyond the wonderfully contemporary Alessi plant, there is hardly nothing. «I will never leave my land», says Alessi. It’s easy to believe him considering the enthusiasm that he displayed when talking about the Valle Strombia. Like that of a kid, a mix of excitement and fear stemming from the desire to try, hoping to be able to make it. It is not by chance that behind the door of Alberto Alessi’s office I can see, on a photocopy that has seen many springs, the decalogue of the Good Designer by Achille Castiglioni. I read: «experience does not give certainly. On the contrary, it increases the possibility to make mistakes. The more time goes by, the more it’s difficult to design better. Start all over again, with patience and humbleness». Alberto Alessi has both. www.alessi.com

Alberto Alessi 

the hint of curiosity and enthusiasm

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About Laura Traldi

I am a journalist at D la Repubblica. I also have a blog about #design that sometimes makes people talk. Visit www.designatlarge.it
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