Big Think presents an interview with Alberto Alessi, CEO of Alessi Design.
Question: Is design a luxury?Alessi: Depends from what you think is a luxury. Design, for me, for all the Italian design factories phenomenon, is a new and very contemporary form of art and poetry. Then, is art and poetry a luxury? I leave to you the question. Question: How do you balance functionality with art?Alessi: It depends very much from the area where you are working in. For example, my personal job in my work, I am dealing with the objects that are hundreds of years old, if not millenary sold. If you think how old this bowl or a cup or a pot, thousand years old, that means that almost all the functional matters have been… have found their solution. And this space, which is left, is still a space related to the emotions, not so much to the function. You cannot invent so much in my field. Question: Are recessions good for creativity?Alessi: There are 2 schools of thinking in that area. One school says that okay, in design history that while periods of very, very tough economic or social situation… like if you take Finland, Northern Europe, in the ‘30s, when Finland started to be an independent country and it was the same period when it gave birth to the best of its design, the Alvar Aalto, just to quote one… to mention one name. Or even if you think to Italy right after the war, when Italy was all destroyed and the phenomenon during the early ‘50s, this phenomenon of the Italian design factories started operating. But on the other hand, there is the other school that says, the more we can afford to experiment, also looking to the market, the more… the wider and healthier is the market, the better it is for experiments… experimental activities.Question: How does your business change during a recession?Alessi: We put more attention to the prices that is evident, self-evident. But this is the only modification. For the rest, since I do not believe design is a luxury but design is a new form of art and poetry, so people need art and poetry as well. They will need design. So I’m trying to continue to develop the best possible design. I will, by sure, not decrease the effort to produce the best possible design. That is sure. Question: Is there a dichotomy between design and marketability?Alessi: I don’t see contradiction between having a design with a lot of integrity and also being accepted by the market. An American designer, Raymond Loewy, in the ‘30s, was saying… was practicing the strategy invented by him, that was called the MAYA Strategy. Meaning most advanced yet acceptable by the people. This is the factor… what makes a good design. To be, together, able to… To be able to bring together the best possible quality in terms of expression in artistic terms, and that is a cultural matter. And also, to be understood by final customers, and that is a commercial matter. The science of design is that we try to put these 2 apparently opposite facts of matters together. Question: How do you integrate research into your product line?Alessi: Being a research lab, I am allowed to take, by definition, to take more risks in my activity. And to work more close to the borderline, the borderline which divides the area of possible from the area of not possible. Okay, the difference with a mass production company is that mass production company… They try to work as far as possible from the borderline. Instead, being an Italian design company, my role and my destiny is to work as close as possible to the borderline. By definition, I’m asked to take more risks in my industrial activity, [which] is more exciting also. Question: What is one design that really impressed you?Alessi: Going back to this example of Richard Sapper water kettle. This was a good example because Richard wanted to have a polysensorial, multisensorial object. I mean, an object not appealing only to the seeing or touching but also to other senses, for example, hearing. He wanted to produce a melody. Not only that, he wanted a melody… remembering when he was a child and living in Germany, in a village with a river, and on the river, was passing by a steamboat. He wanted his kettle producing the same melody. After, like, one and a half year, my technicians were not able to find a way so he was obliged to put the project on the side and to abandon it. Until… Then, 2 years later, one of Sapper’s sisters, living in Germany, found out in the Black Forest, there’s more craftsman producing the quarries. Quarries are these pipes that you put inside and that are producing the melody. So after some negotiation, we had a special production of 2 different versions of pipes, with a E and with a C. Which allow me to start again with the project, were, then, was present in ’82 and became one of the most important Alessi product. Question: How do you maintain your local identity while appealing to a global market?Alessi: I think that our identity of… as an Italian design factory or research laboratory into the field of design stays precisely. In that, we are able to express different localities or different local cultures represented by our designers. Because if we work with Philippe Starck, he is representing… And people are looking into… within his projects, expecting to find an expression of French culture. If we work with Michael Graves, people… The quality of his work stays in the fact that his work is coming out from American culture. Or with Japanese or Brazilian or British… And the characteristic of preserving this locality, these local cultures is the biggest [strength] that… is one of the skills of the Italian design factories, not global at all. In a way, we become interesting on a global scenario, right? Because we represent very specific local cultures, which having presented by our designers.Question: Where is the future of design?Alessi: As far as I can see, this phenomenon of the Italian design factories, which is, today, the kind of hail of all the phenomenon, like the Deutsche of Verbund, the Bauhauser, the [University] of State and Craft in England and so on, is continuing to act well. In terms of where the creative energies can come from, I agree that today, in this moment, Italy has a little freshness like we had many years ago. And there are countries which are apparently, in this moment, more interesting, for example, UK, Japan, even probably US, at least, into the world of architecture if not design. And so, we are very much looking to these areas.