The Alessi way
The whistle kettle is among the best-sellers that have made Alessi into a global brand. Matteo Alessi talks to Deirdre McQuillan about the company's design concept
How much does Alessi typify Italian design? We see design as the main element of our production and our mission. Design is a much-abused word and often used as a marketing tool. For us it is the core of our activity as a company and the main ingredient of the recipe of what we are making. Others use it as the spice to make the food taste better.
Most Italian design seems to originate from architects? More than half of Italian designers are architects, yes, but we approach design as mediators between creativity and the market and that differentiates us from other design houses. Many of our designers have trained as architects, especially the old masters, but nowadays there are plenty of design schools everywhere producing talented designers. We work with around 200 designers.
What are your best selling items? Our best sellers are the Juicy Salif lemon squeezer (by Philippe Starck), the A di Alessi corkscrew and the whistle kettle (by Michael Graves), and the wire basket, which is one of the oldest items (dating from 1948) has outsold the other three. We cut and press stainless steel but we use other technologies and typologies to make other products with a network of manufacturers all over the world. The tea and coffee set has been in production since 1945 and still sells.
How do you select new products? Some send us their own proposals and proposals from the work of their apprentices. It’s a much wider approach and we have research projects all over the world with different cultures. We are very open to ideas.
Have you ever worked with an Irish designer? In the past we did once get close to working with an Irish designer, but for us, it is the idea and the potential of that idea that is important. The quality of the design is important and the feelings and memories it evokes in the consumer.
Do Italians associate Ireland with design? I used to manage the UK and Irish markets and although the Irish market isn’t huge, there is a good level of design culture and understanding of design, so we associate Irish culture with design, even though it is true many Italians would not do so.
You have a huge number of products, some 2,000 – why so many?
We see our catalogue as an encyclopaedia of applied design and you add to rather than subtract from an encyclopaedia, though sometimes we are forced by logistical, technical or regulatory reasons to withdraw some.
How many new products do you launch each year? We launch about 40-50 every year and as many ideas from one world to another. For instance, we have an Algerian developing cous cous servers and a Chinese developer [doing] chop sticks.
How will you make your mark on the company? I want to maintain what we have done but match it to the markets of today. If you want to boil water, you don’t need to spend €100 on a kettle, but there is a huge difference between our kettle and others.
There are different layers – aesthetics, finish, heritage, history, craftsmanship, attention to detail and manufacturing – to be evaluated by the customer. We are asking you to give us money for these values and therefore there is a stronger engagement [with the brand].
How important is a family business? Our strategy implies a very high level of risk so the commitment of the whole family to the vision and mission that we have is very important. Had we been owned by a bank with quarterly profit statements, we could not succeed. We can’t guarantee short-term performance. Creativity is like grass: we have to wait for it to grow, water it, nourish it and help it express its full potential.
Tell us about your association with Peroni and the Irish design competition: We have worked with Peroni since 2007 and we bring the same concept and message about the Italian lifestyle, about craftsmanship and detail. Good design overlaps another in the market and drinking and serving are two linked concepts. We are launching a competition for Irish designers to present ideas linked to the best way to serve beer. Depending on the results, the winning item could well be a future Alessi product if it has the right level of quality.
Matteo Alessi will be in Dublin on Wednesday to launch an Irish design competition in tandem with the Italian brewer Peroni and to unveil the exhibition Icons of Italian Design at the Gallery of Photography in Temple Bar. For further information about the competition, visit email@example.com