An Italian Design Factory Since 1921
Explore the history and origins of Alessi and discover how its partnerships with the most interesting designers came about.
In 1921, Giovanni Alessi and his brother founded Fratelli Alessi Omegna - FAO, a “Workshop for processing brass and nickel silver sheet, with a foundry”. FAO’s first production was inspired by the dictates of the most prestigious manufacturers of objects for the home of the early 20th century, particularly those from Austria and England. Giovanni was obsessed with quality and skilled craftsmanship: his products made of copper, brass and nickel silver, which were subsequently plated with nickel, chrome or silver, became immediately renowned for their meticulous crafting and perfect finish.
In 1932, Carlo Alessi, Giovanni’s eldest son, joined the family firm while still very young, designing most of the objects made between the mid-Thirties and 1945. The company’s growth accelerated in the Thirties, the number of people employed in the manufacturing department increased and an initial sales network was created. Thanks to Carlo’s design talents, the first original, independently creative products were produced. At the end of the decade, this promising acceleration was brought to a halt by changing political conditions.
The outbreak of the Second World War meant that Fratelli Alessi Omegna, like many other Italian companies, was required to dedicate its efforts to the weapons industry. When the War came to an end and FAO got back to business, it laid the foundations for that transformation process that was to take the company from an artisan dimension to an industrial scale. Moreover, it developed a much clearer product image, capable of competing with the creativity of the leading companies in the sector and penetrating the emerging Italian design scene.
The company gradually abandoned the use of soft metals in the '50s, replacing them with stainless steel, transforming production from artisan to industrial. A sign of change with a new name: ALFRA (ALessi FRAtelli). During these years, the company specialised in the production of objects for professional use (for hotels, restaurants, bars, etc.). Carlo Alessi, the founder’s eldest son, took over from his father at the company helm. His brother Ettore, who had joined the company in 1945, became head of the Engineering Department, consolidating its design identity: it was at this time that certain “industrial types” of product like baskets and fruit bowls made of steel wire were created. Led by him, ALFRA also began working in partnership with independent designers.
In the 1960s, products designed for the professional sector were joined by a collection of objects created for domestic use. The “Ceselleria Alessi” range, a reinterpretation of the styles of traditional silverware, appealed strongly to the tastes popular at that time, soon becoming real best sellers. The international market exploded and the high-quality craftsmanship of the new polished and satin-finish steel products made the Italian company a huge success. This resulted, in 1964, in its being assigned the prestigious “Mercurio d’Oro Award for Industry”, beating off competition from over 100 rival companies and earning itself a reputation for being one of the most creative and enterprising companies in the sector.
The First Design Heroes
In 1970, Alberto Alessi, the founder’s grandson, joined the company. A collection of trays and baskets designed by the Exhibition Design group, a modular table service system conceived by Franco Sargiani and Ejia Helander, and Alessi d’Après, were the first designs he developed. Alessi d’Après was a research operation for the production of “art multiples” which involved, along with others, Salvador Dalì: a clear declaration of Alberto’s desire to produce objects which were not only functional, but also capable of satisfying people’s need for art and poetry. In the ‘70s, after these initial projects, partnerships with Ettore Sottsass, Richard Sapper, Achille Castiglioni and Alessandro Mendini contributed to transforming the company into the Factory of Design imagined by Alberto.
Tea & Coffee Piazza
In the first half of the ’80s, the partnership with Alessandro Mendini triggered the research operation entitled Tea & Coffee Piazza, aimed at exploring the world of international architecture to identify new talents capable of renewing the language of design that characterised objects for the home. The theme proposed to the architects involved was the “tea and coffee set”. Presented in 1983, the results of the “Tea & Coffee Piazza” research were hugely successful with public and critics alike, placing Alessi firmly among the Factories of Italian Design. The operation also led to the discovery of two great new designers: Aldo Rossi and Michael Graves.
Young Designers & New Materials
Centro Studi Alessi (CSA) opened in the early ‘90s with a dual mission: to develop theoretical contributions on matters linked to objects and to coordinate the work that the company wanted to launch with young designers, no longer only those who already had a consolidated reputation. Alessi’s research opened the doors to new design languages and some of the icon-products of the time were created, including the Firebird gas lighter by Guido Venturini or the Mary Biscuit container by Stefano Giovannoni. Other materials were brought into production alongside steel which had been used almost exclusively until then. The catalogue was enriched with objects made of wood, plastic, glass, porcelain, ceramic, etc... The Alessi Museum opened in 1998.
Tea & Coffee Towers
The Tea & Coffee Towers design operation opened the 2000s, following the same theoretic assumptions as Tea & Coffee Piazza, 20 years on. Once again, the theme proposed to the architects involved was the “tea and coffee set”, reducing their large-scale design visions to a smaller scale. The operation launched a new series of partnerships, including those with David Chipperfield, Doriana and Massimiliano Fuksas, Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito, bringing the eclectic character of the Alessi catalogue to full maturity. “All the knowledge and expansions of the previous catalogues”, notes Alessandro Mendini, “was furthered, amplified and reinterpreted with a dilation and proliferation of products that had never been experienced at any time previously throughout Alessi's history.” In 2000, Alessi launched partnerships with companies operating in production sectors very different from its own, offering great experience in the development of research in the design field.
Ethical & Radical
Alessi’s research over the past decade has developed between two points, defined by Alessandro Mendini as “ethical” and “radical”. “Ethical”, considered as a leaning towards a new simplicity, and an austere kind of design. “Radical”, on the other hand, indicates the search for strongly expressive and decorative forms. Designs with a “radical” imprint (by Mendini or Marcel Wanders, for instance) and those with an ethical tendency (such as those of Naoto Fukasawa or David Chipperfield), can be read according to this dichotomy, despite the diversity of their languages inviting us to reflect on the relativity of this classification. The distinction between “ethical” and “radical” is a partial attempt to try and define the much more complex reality of design as an artistic and poetic creative discipline.