Thursday, 3 November 2011

Alessi and Architects

The article below first featured in Architecture Ireland #257

Alessi, an Italian family company founded in 1921, has always been at the forefront of the design and manufacture of kitchen and home wares. Its first chief designer (later their chief executive) Carlo Alessi was instrumental in the formation of Alessi’s signature style: playful and never so simplistic that the product lost a sense of character. To date, one of Alessi’s bestselling products is Carlo Alessi’s BombĂ© tea and coffee set, originally designed in 1946. Favouring something less minimal than many of its northern European counterparts, it made sense for Alessi to begin in the 1980s to collaborate with ‘star’ designers and architects to create statement works that were both experimental and fun. Since then, Alessi has had many big names design special commissions, limited edition pieces and everyday ranges for the brand. As well as a typically Italian interest in flamboyant designs, Alessi has always been keen to explore and expand in terms of its manufacturing abilities. Originally a craftsman-led factory, Alessi has developed its manufacturing techniques in tandem with industry at large. Collaboration with outside designers has led Alessi to become a place for technical experimentation as well as a ‘workshop’ for new design ideas and typologies. In 1983 Alessi began its Tea and Coffee Piazza series, where eleven architects, including Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi and Hans Hollein - whose idea that “alles ist architecktur” (everything is architecture) is particularly resonant - were invited to design highly limited tea and coffee sets. In 2002 Alessi returned to the idea with their Tea and Coffee Towers, inviting Chipperfield, Wiel Arets, UN Studio and others to design a new generation of exclusive tea and coffee sets.

Japanese firm SANAA designed a highly limited (99 editions, most now held in design collections around the world) tea and coffee set for the Towers project. This set of coffee pot, tea pot, milk jug, sugar bowl and sweet box look just like round, juicy fruit when clustered together on their tray. This highly finished fruit bowl is simultaneously playful and elegant, and a perfect example of how much room for expression a small set of objects can provide. Jean Nouvel’s contribution to the project led to an everyday range of double-walled, highly polished stainless steel objects such as a pitcher, milk jug, mocha mug and sugar bowl, with matching saucers, trays and spoons. All of the objects are alluringly simple, but the larger of them (the pitcher and the milk jug) have a purposeful indent on their sides – interrupting the regularity of their forms.


After former UK architectural practice Future Systems contributed to the Tea and Coffee Towers project they went on to design the Bettina range for Alessi. Bettina is a fine example of an everyday range that epitomises its designers’ architectural style on a vastly smaller scale. Bettina’s porcelain, glassware and cutlery all achieve that same fluidity of form that you see in Future Systems’ architectural output. At times graceful and at times bulbous and playful, the sometimes outlandish formal qualities of a Future Systems building become altogether homelier and more elegant on this smaller scale.

Having worked many times with David Chipperfield since his own interpretation of the Tea and Coffee Towers, it made sense that when Alessi decided to take their first step into furniture production, they would do so with a long-time collaborator. Chipperfield’s Piana folding chair is an expression of function and simplicity, but not without Alessi’s trademark flamboyance (the chair is produced in a wide range of colourful polypropylene with integrated glass fibre for strength). Alessi’s dedication to experimentation rather than solely focussing on large-scale manufacture and commercial output has led not only to projects that embrace creativity, character and even luxury, but has also led to everyday ranges that are elegant and fun. And now that Alessi is beginning to embrace furniture production, its ‘workshop’ for ideas can now take an even larger scale and greater scope.

(All images via Alessi)