From Philippe Starck’s squid-inspired juicer to Alessandro Mendini’s anthropomorphic corkscrew and Michael Graves’ kettle with bird-shaped whistle, the Italian brand Alessi has become synonymous with humorous designs that combine colourful resin details with playful shapes (many of which are made of stainless steel, the firm’s material of choice since its founding in 1921).

But when third-generation owner Alberto Alessi first entered his family business in 1970, there was nothing colourful about the company. While his grandfather and father had established a successful business producing well-made objects, there wasn’t a strong creative element to its products. ‘In 1970, Alessi felt a bit grey,’ he recalls. ‘Everything was made of metal, and the factory smelled like car oil. I was young and hopeful, and my plan was to introduce a bit of fun.’ He did so by inviting what he calls ‘an exaggerated number of designers’ to boost the aesthetic quality of the company, setting a new course for what over the next 50 years would establish itself as one of Italy’s most recognisable and relevant design brands. 

Alessi at 100: a celebration through iconic design

This year, Alberto Alessi is celebrating his family firm’s centenary with a year-long project that pays tribute not only to the design masters he worked with over the years, but also the values that have shaped the company during this time. Every month for the next year, a new product will be unveiled, either a previously unreleased design or a novel version of an Alessi classic.

Colorful Kitchen accessories by Ettore Sottsass for Alessi in wood and metal

The celebrations kick off with a project dedicated to Industrial Craftsmanship, a fitting theme for a company that has described itself as ‘a cross between a mass production industry and craftsman’s workshop’. The initiative’s first offering is Twergi, a collection initially conceived by Ettore Sottsass in the 1980s, and now released in new colourways. Inspired by local wood-turning traditions, the designer’s iconic colourful totems are scaled down into mundane objects such as jars, corkscrews and pepper mills. Also included are wooden photo holders and a corkscrew by Bortolani Becchelli Associati, Kuno Prey and Andrea Branzi.

wooden objects designed by Andrea Branzi for Alessi

Further chapters in the Alessi 100 Values Collection will explore ideas of Art (with dotted vases by Mendini), Research and Poetry, with more obscure themes (such as Paradox) devised to delve deeper into previously unrealised projects. The products will also paint a picture of Alberto Alessi’s own experience, one that has been inextricably linked to the 300 or so designers – including Achille Castiglioni, Aldo Rossi and Enzo Mari – he met along the way. It started in the early 1970s with Sottsass, who left a deep impression on Alberto Alessi. ‘He said to me, “as an entrepreneur, you have a great cultural responsibility, because you’re going to fill the world with millions of objects”.’ Over the years, Alessi saw designers work in radically diverse ways, from Richard Sapper’s ultra-precise drawings to Rossi’s often childlike sketches (‘his concepts were so strong that they’d survive any changes our technical department tried to impart on them’). ‘Meeting each of these design masters slowly transformed us into one of Italy’s great design factories,’ he says.

The key to this success? Patience: ‘My job is to plant seeds, and wait for them to give signs of life,’ he says. ‘The results are sometimes small, sometimes interesting. Patience is important because I work with an unpredictable material, which is creativity applied to an industrial and artisanal context.’ §