No one needs a $190 corkscrew.
But Alessi, a family-owned Italian design firm founded in 1921, sells them. Along with $175 citrus juicers, $24 water tumblers, $180 cocktail shakers, $175 tea kettles, among hundreds of other household objects.
“There are many ways to open a bottle,” Alberto Alessi said, over lunch Thursday. “Sure, Italian design doesn’t mainly deal with function and price. Other companies do function and price better. But there is great demand in the marketplace for the poetic and the artistic. We make real things that people can buy and love.”
Alessi, the company’s president, was in town to give a talk Thursday night at the Milwaukee Art Museum. MAM’s current show, European Design Since 1985, features several Alessi items. He was in the U.S. anyway, for the Nov. 20 opening of the Philadelphia Museum of Art‘s Ethical and Radical, a show devoted to Alessi products exclusively. His company stands atop the design world, a perch it has occupied for decades.
The company ascended by putting designers first.
“Our actual job is to be a mediator between the world of design and the world of the market,” Alessi said. “We have the talent and we have the tools to develop the talent.”
At its headquarters on Lake Orta, in a picturesque, mountainous region about 60 miles north of Milan, Alessi employs highly skilled metal and woodworkers equipped with advanced prototyping equipment. Alessi seeks out the most interesting designers in the world and, essentially, puts his crew at their disposal and invites them to follow their muses. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out. Which is OK.
“Sometimes we need to prove to a designer that we believe in him, so we produce a product even though we know it won’t sell,” Alessi said.
[We’ll just pause for a moment, to allow any MBAs reading this piece to regain consciousness after that statement. OK, you with us again business people? How many fingers am I holding up? Good, let’s go on.]
The Alessi company is famously lenient with its designers. At his talk Thursday night, Alessi said that it took Philippe Starck about three years to come up with the Spider Citrus Juicer. Alessi worked for years on another designer’s scheme to recycle plastic bottles into vases. When that proved too expensive to manufacture, they marketed sets of DIY instructions for transforming your own bottles into vases, complete with Alessi designer labels to stick on them. (Some of Alessi’s products are severe and modernist; many are whimsical and embody a certain mischievous humor.)
Method lies behind the madness. Alessi knows, after all these years, that he is not selling on low price. His marketplace equation: functional value + status/style value + poetic value. The thing has to work, and work well. Beyond that, as an object it must satisfy in some higher way. That requires setting the Alessi corkscrew or teakettle or even flyswatter apart from the rest. Design makes that difference. Alessi seeks to transform mundane objects into art objects that enrich their owners’ lives as paintings or sculptures would. To do that, he must take chances.
“Marketing-driven companies stay as far away from the borderline as possible,” he said. “That’s why they all make the same car and the same TV and they all become more and more boring.” By “borderline,” he means that place where the buying public just doesn’t understand a product’s look and feel. “To be successful, Alessi must be close to the borderline of the impossible. Transgression is an important element of Italian design.”
“That’s how you know where the borderline is,” he said. “It’s gotten to the point where the family gets anxious if we don’t have at least one fiasco per year. Alessi runs on fliexibility, intuition and acceptance of risk.”
But don’t get the idea that Alessi is some sort of aesthetic charity. It’s a business with a market niche that its president understands precisely. He’s worked out the math of business aesthetics.
At the interview and at the talk Thursday night, he breezed through an explanation of a formula he devised that has a long history of predicting how many units he will sell of a given piece. He claims that for known Alessi product categories — coffee services, for example — the formula has never failed. So he pretty much knows which products will be moneymakers, which will break even and which will lose before he puts them on the market. Those figures guide his decisions, but do not dictate them. Sometimes, he might put something out there to stir up controversy and interest, in the way that fashion designers put crazy things on a runway in Paris or New York. Sometimes, he might need to cultivate a designer. Sometimes, he just might think a piece is beautiful and worth making.
“It is not enough,” he said, “just to be a success.”