Flick through the most fashionable home magazines of the 1980’s and 90’s and you will see that no kitchen was complete without the familiar whistling bird kettle or that alien looking lemon squeezer. Whilst both pieces were radically different, they shared the same maker -Alessi. Today Alessi penetrates more than just designer homes of the elite, its success has spawned many imitators. Their designs have been recognised as instant classics and often are bought not for domestic use but as collectables pieces of good design.
With designs in shops all over the world you would be forgiven for thinking that Alessi sprang up out of the 80’s designer boom. In fact Alessi is an Italian family company founded by Giovanni Alessi in 1921. Eldest son Carlo joined him in the mid 1930’s and began designing the majority of their output until 1945 including the ‘Bombe Coffee series’- manufactured to this day. Carlo was also responsible for the expansion of Alessi through the 1950’s and 1960’s as well as using outside designers.
The 1970s proved a turning point for Alessi with the arrival of grandson Alberto Alessi, he set the template for their relationships with some of the worlds most important designers.
Alberto’s flair for nurturing working relationships with well-respected designers grew in the 1970’s and blossomed in the 1980’s. He was not afraid to ask an architect to design a kitchen utensil, or an industrial designer to develop a series of flower vases. This cross-pollination of designers from different disciplines has produced a huge back catalogue of Alessi products many of which are present in important museum collections.
Back to that kettle -in 1983 Michael Graves was asked to design a stove kettle that would appeal to the American market. In 1985 Alessi unveiled the ‘Kettle with a Bird shaped Whistle’. Whilst it was not the cheapest on the market, people warmed to the intriguing soft, disarming design and became an instant classic. I can honestly say that my own Alessi bird kettle has never seen the hob, though whether they are in use or not, they still look beautiful.
Another icon is the ‘Juicy Salif’ lemon squeezer designed by Philippe Starck in 1990. Standing on three pointed legs, this strange object is still a kitchen must have even though it is probably seldom used. In the early 90’s when neutral tones and recession brought a back to basics design style, Alessi’s future might have looked bleak. Nevertheless, this decade saw huge creativity including the instantly recognisable Girotondo range where human shaped silhouette motifs decorate or take on the form of novelty items from trays, letter racks to egg cups and even jewellery.
Due to its worldwide presence, Alessi hunting can be great fun when on holiday and almost certainly you will find discontinued designs on the shelves. Different countries tastes will often leave some of their more extravagant, experimental projects on the shelves sometimes years after they ceased production. Internet auctions can prove equally fruitful. As these items were sometimes bought for their looks, they will survive in good condition. Carlo Alessi’s Bombe shape wares do appear quite often and seem reasonable purchases at 100-150 pounds considering that they are now 50 years old and a new example would cost more. Their huge range and timeless designs make Alessi particularly hard to date as pieces stay in production for many years. A classic cocktail shaker designed by Luigi Massoni in 1957 still can be bought for less than its brand new counterpart and what can be more satisfying than pouring your cocktail from a vintage piece of cool design? Early examples will have the trademark ‘Alfra Alessi’ on the base indicating it was produced until 1967. Of course, if you are lucky enough, original stickers and packaging can also help in the dating.
For those with a slightly more ambitious budget you could try and search for one of their 100% Make Up vases. This project started in 1989 and was based upon a vase deigned by Alessandro Mendini. One hundred artists and designers from different disciplines were commissioned to decorate this shape of which 100 of each design were produced. Considering this means that 10,000 were produced, they remain elusive. Some can be found at modern design auctions, but the project attracted a lot of press attention and many were snapped up immediately by design addicts and museums. Some designs proved more popular than others and some do re-appear costing about £250 upwards.
At a time when struggling companies employ ‘designers’ to revive tired ranges, Alessi’s concept seems more important now than ever. Despite having almost over 2000 products in its latest range, it would still prefer to be seen as Alberto Alessi describes “A kind of handcraft with the help of machines”. Their philosophy harks back to the ideals of Christopher Dresser, Josef Hoffmann’s Wiener Werkstatte and the radical Bauhaus group. Alberto Alessi has written of his love of the works of Dr Christopher Dresser and the company still reproduce some of his 19th Century designs that blend perfectly alongside their most contemporary ranges. Dr Dresser was also a prolific designer of household metal items, it seems a natural progression that almost 100 years later Alessi have translated with such ease his early designs into Stainless Steel, I am sure the good doctor would approve with such progress.
Original, early designs from pioneers such as Dresser and Hoffmann are now way out of most peoples price range with some fetching thousands of pounds. Collecting Alessi can be a great deal of fun thanks to its accessibility. There are not many affordable items that can grace museum displays as well as your living room. Perhaps, if you have the conviction of Alberto Alessi, a speculative Alessi purchase might just prove a shrewd investment in the long term.
Where to see it
Alessi has a Museum housing a massive collection. Like their products, the building itself was designed by Alesandro Mendini. Located in Crusinallo, Italy the museum is open by appointment only. However this museum provides support to some of the most important museums and galleries throughout the world.
Alessi Online- www.alessi .it
Visiting their website is quite an experience as well as chance to see new ranges.
To see the 100% Make-up in its entirety, it is on permanent display in The Hague’s
Municipal Museum (Gemeentemuseum)
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
2517 HV Den Haag
Tel. 31 (0)70 3381111
email: [email protected]