Alberto Alessi, head of the world-famous design factory that bears his name, doesn't like to travel much anymore. And why would he? With an office in Crusinallo, Italy, deep in the heart of the famed Lombardy region—home to some of the world's most revered design firms—and a 300-year-old house under renovation in the misty hills around Lake Orta, not much is more appealing than his own casa and cucina. Plus, there's his new hobby as a vintner, raising pinot and chardonnay grapes. "They're difficult to grow," he concedes, "but I'm always looking for a challenge."
The grandson of Giovanni Alessi, who founded the family business in 1921 to make metal products, Alberto, 63, has cultivated a distinctive design aesthetic by pursuing an unlikely vision: that homey domestic items are as worthy of first-rate creative thinking as grand buildings or attention-grabbing chairs. And he has recruited to the cause an ensemble of global design celebrities—Philippe Starck, Richard Meier, Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi, Ron Arad, and Ettore Sottsass, to name a few.
"I can't think of any other company that gets close to Alessi's stable of designers, level of quality, and consistency of discovery," says Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, home of American modernism. Alessi spoke to a jam-packed audience at Cranbrook on a recent, rare trip to the United States. "They were in this game a long time before Target and Ikea, at a higher level of quality. More than anyone else, Alessi understands that design is more than a value-added proposition. It's a fundamental value."
In 1980, Alessi challenged 11 noted architects to create tabletop coffee and tea sets, in which the pots would mimic buildings and the tray would serve as a "piazza." The collection was a design sensation (if not a commercial one: The limited edition sets sold for as much as $25,000) and toured U.S. museums. Then Alessi asked architect Michael Graves to design a teakettle, and Graves's vision caught fire.