There is an Italian Renaissance going on at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Several exhibits are currently on view, showcasing different aspects of the creative genius of modern day Italy.
In the case of Alessi: Ethical and Radical, the interface of artistic beauty and functional design is the theme of an impressive display of manufactured products from one of Italy’s most celebrated “factories of design.” These objects — tea and coffee pots, fruit baskets and kitchen utensils — are used in everyday life, but are anything but ordinary.
Alessi S.p.A is a family-owned and operated company, founded in 1921 in the foothills of the Alps. Drawing on artisan traditions and a workforce skilled in crafting wood and metal, Giovanni Alessi’s firm produced hand-crafted domestic wares that were beautiful and usable. In 1945, as Italy struggled to emerge from the debris of World War II, the company shifted to mass-production. Under Giovanni’s son, Carlo Alessi, the company reinvented itself, adhering to the spirit of Italy’s age-old pride of craftsmanship, while retooling its production lines to meet the demands of the twentieth century.
Alessi’s integration of new and old is displayed in one of the first works on display. Carlo Alessi’s elegant Bombé Tea and Coffee Service, designed in 1945 and still in production today, reveals how quickly — and brilliantly — the company adjusted to the circumstances of the post-war world.
The following year was one of the most significant in Italy’s history. Vittorio De Sica’s landmark film, Shoeshine, premiered in 1946. And the Vespa motor scooter, later immortalized with a carefree Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck at the controls in Roman Holiday, made its debut in 1946. Less famous, but of lasting importance was the RIMA exhibition in Milan. Italian designers and industrial leaders gathered at the Riunione Italiana Mostre per ‘lArredamento (RIMA) to promote the ideals of beauty and utility in factory-made popular furnishings (l’arredamento populare).
Since Alessi’s Bombé Tea and Coffee Service was a prime example of what the RIMA exhibition was promoting, the company was well-situated to profit from the savvy strategy that made the words “Italian design” a key element of the nation’s industrial revival. As the company prospered, Carlo Alessi devoted more of his time to managing, and less to the design of new products. Technical matters were increasingly handled by his brother, Ettore, who widened the talent pool at Alessi by bringing in outside consultants to create new product designs. Eventually, by the 1980’s, with Carlo’s son Alberto directing the firm, a “stable” of designers from all over Europe, the United States, Latin America and Japan were working for Alessi.
The decade of the 1950’s at Alessi is represented in the Philadelphia Museum exhibition by the stainless steel cocktail shaker designed in 1957 by Luigi Massoni and Carlo Mazzeri. The tapered shape of this suave, elegant and eminently usable cocktail set achieved an almost iconic status. An example of the Massoni-Mazzeri cocktail shaker is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It set the tone for years to come for the design hallmarks of Alessi products — utility, artistry and affordability.
Most of the Alessi wares on display at the Philadelphia exhibit date from the 1980’s to the present. This is the era of Alberto Alessi, Carlo’s son, who was born in 1946. Alberto Alessi joined the firm in 1970 as general manager, emphasizing artistry to a degree that is readily apparent in the objects on display. Under Alberto Alessi’s leadership, the company has drawn on the skills of established artists, some of international renown like Salvatore Dali and Ron Arad.
Utility, artistry and affordability were combined at Alessi with striking results. In 1979, Alberto Alessi commissioned the German designer Richard Sapper to design an espresso coffee maker that could be used both in the kitchen and at the dining table. Sapper’s design for the award-winning 9090 espresso maker, along with the example in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection, is on display in the exhibit. So is the 9091 tea kettle designed by Sapper in 1983. Sapper’s 9091 provides evidence of another facet of the Alessi company that has increasingly gained prominence under Alberto Alessi’s leadership — whimsical humor.
The 9091 was designed to produce a musical whistle, not to mention boiling water. Marketed to wide acclaim, the 9091 further enhanced its appeal by coming with replaceable whistles, one ‘e’ note and one ‘b’ note. Two years later, Alessi introduced a second tea kettle, the 9093. This was designed by Michael Graves, a now legendary American architect with his own product design firm, based in Princeton, New Jersey. Graves’ teapot integrated themes from Art Deco and Pop Art, with a detachable bird-shaped whistle over the spout, which emits a softer, less symphonic note than Sapper’s 9091.
In remarks at the press briefing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Alberto Alessi said that the “singing” tea kettles presented significant design challenges. Not the kettles themselves, but the whistles, which at first quickly wore out. This raises the question why Alberto Alessi chose to go to the trouble and expense for what some might regard as gimmicks. In a 2009 interview with Linda Tischler of Fast Company magazine, he stated his belief that “design is a new form of art and poetry, but with the strange destiny of bringing a little bit of joy to people. In that sense, humor probably helps.”
Not all of the humor in Alessi designs will please everyone. The company markets a plastic bathtub plug with a float in the shape of a strangled, cartoon-like figure entitled “Mr. Suicide.” Designed by the Italian cartoonist Massimo Giacon, Mr. Suicide raises an eyebrow even in the Alessi online catalog where it is described as “probably the weirdest single creation in the Alessi universe, and definitely one of the most provocative.”
Mr. Suicide is a no-show in the Philadelphia exhibition but the delightful Anna G Corkscrew and the striking, spiderlike Juicy Salif Citrus Squeezer, designed in 1990 by Philippe Starck, are on display. Both show how Alessi designers have successfully managed to integrate humor into the company’s set of principles.
The Anna G Corkscrew was designed by Alessandro Mendini, a major figure in the evolution of Italian design and one of Alberto Alessi’s closest associates. Their partnership, which began in the 1970’s, has been described as being “almost telepathic.”
Mendini recommended a daring initiative to Alessi, which would depart in certain respects from his company’s guiding principles of utility, artistry and affordability. Mendini envisaged a project that would challenge noted architects to create coffee and tea sets in expensive, limited editions. These sets, made of silver rather than stainless steel, were to be based on the theme of the piazza or town square, with the coffee and tea pots and serving vessels standing in for buildings and the tray as the piazza. Mendini envisioned the Tea and Coffee Piazza project as a way to stimulate new ideas and to reinvigorate modern design.
Alberto Alessi agreed. In 1980, he invited eleven architects to design Tea and Coffee Piazza sets that would reflect their vision and principles. One of them, the noted Philadelphia-based architect, Robert Venturi, came to the press briefing, along with his wife and fellow architect, Denise Scott Brown. Venturi’s set, which looks like it would be the most usable, was also the most traditional in design. Fellow American, Charles Jencks, designed an exquisite set reflecting the classical orders of architecture.
The Tea and Coffee Piazza sets, produced in limited editions of ninety-nine, with three artist’s proofs, were a critical success. The project served to introduce Michael Graves to the Alessi “stable,” while traveling exhibits informed museum patrons on the ways that high art and industrial design could form working partnerships. Mendini’s original conception was vindicated.
Twenty years later, a sequel, Tea and Coffee Towers, was unveiled. If the silver of the 1980’s venture was a major departure from Alessi’s trademark stainless steel, the materials used by the twenty-two participants in the 2003 initiative blasted Alessi Tea and Coffee sets into orbit. Titanium, heat-resistant glass, thermoplastic resin and anodized aluminum were some of the materials that the participating architects utilized in their creations.
Examples of the Tea and Coffee Piazza and Tea and Coffee Towers sets are displayed in the center of the exhibition. These sets are literally show-stoppers, with the Tea and Coffee Towers, leaving gallery visitors both bemused and entranced. Greg Lynn’s set, shaped like the petals of an iridescent flower, and the mystifying design by Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete have an ethereal beauty all their own.
The Alessi exhibition is subtitled “Ethical and Radical.” Every decade, the Alessi Company chooses a theme in retrospect to characterize the way that their product line has developed. This time, “Ethical and Radical” is a forecast of how Alberto Alessi and the other members of the firm are looking at the next ten years. By radical, Alberto Alessi explained, the company is looking to emphasize “a new simplicity.” That is no easy task in an age of titanium and thermoplastic resin and economic recession.
The emphasis on ethics, is perhaps a better clue to Alessi’s future. Since the 1990’s, Alessi has been providing design opportunities to young artists. The amazing Blow up Citrus Basket created in 2004 by the Brazilian team of Fernando and Umberto Campana is proof that utility, artistry and affordability have a promising future at Alessi.
As part of the events related to the Alessi: Ethical and Radical exhibition, Alberto Alessi received the Design Excellence Award from Collab on November 20, 2010. Collab is a group of design professionals and enthusiasts who support the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Both the award and the exhibition are a testament to the Alessi Company’s radical and ethical traditions, dating back to the post-war era. Alessi’s refusal to sacrifice artistry for the sake of production and their decision to invest in the future of talented young designers has not always made for a smooth road. It has entailed, as Alberto Alessi remarked, the willingness to “walk on the borderline between the possible and the not possible, of giving scope to the intuition needed to create products that are beautiful and successful.”
Alessi: Ethical and Radical is on view in the Collab Gallery, Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (November 21, 2010 to April 10, 2011)