You couldn't call it heavy metal. In fact, it's just a thin piece of stainless steel cut in the shape of an overweight stick figure. The creation of two Italian architects, the design is disarming in its simplicity. Two legs in the shape of a triangle meet two arms (actually one fat, straight line) upon which rests a round head. This "little man" motif, however, has been a big success for Alessi, producer of fashionable and high-quality household items. Since 1921, the little man has symbolized the simple elegance of the company's designs. The cookie-cutter form graces the edge of a half a million Alessi trays worldwide and can be found on keychains, earrings and baskets.
Alessi made its name with company founder Carlo Alessi's classic Bombé coffee and tea set in 1945. To this day, metal remains the mainstay of Alessi's business, which is based in Crusinallo, a small town in northern Italy near Lake Maggiore. "Our roots are metal, but in the last 20 years we've been giving the designers more possibilities to express themselves," says one of Carlo's sons, Alberto Alessi, the firm's managing director. While more than half of the Alessi designs are still metallic, the firm has moved into porcelain, ceramic, glass, crystal and plastic.
Alessi, 54, who studied law before joining the company in 1970, points out that innovation in housewares is hard to come by, since many of the objects have been around almost as long as man. "How old is a bowl?" he asks. "Thousands and thousands of years. And at the end of this century, how will people be eating? Probably from a dish, with much the same form as it has now."
Alessi believes the future is in plastic. "This is an open chapter, and a lot depends on the curiosity of designers," he says. Dressed in black jeans, sandals and a gray T shirt, he calls himself an art mediator, something like a gallery owner or a museum director his job includes product development and design management. "Alessi is like a big green field, and we're cultivating flowers the designers," he says. "My role is to be a good gardener."
Alessi calls the company's projects "craftsmanship with the help of a machine." Several machines, to be precise, including two large laser cutters at the Crusinallo factory. New materials have meant new customers. "Plastic helps us reach a whole new price level," Alessi says. "It's also less limiting for the designers than metal." Plastic has brought color, bounce and a certain playfulness to the product line. The company now makes fly swatters, bath plugs and soap dishes. It recently experimented with bowls made of straw and wax, although Alessi admits that they are not very practical, since they're good for only dry items. "But they are very beautiful," he says.
Why should customers pay more for an Alessi product? Alessi acknowledges that "there are a lot of pots and pans out there that work just as well or better than ours." But design is one aspect of what sets Alessi apart: the simple elegance of Aldo Rossi's La Cupola espresso maker or the lines of Michael Graves' tea kettle. Alessi has tried to figure out the rest with a formula that contains function, price and what the product means to a shopper's imagination and sense of style. He refuses to do focus groups because he believes they kill creativity. "How do you think Picasso would have painted if he woke up in the morning thinking: 'Who is this for, and what do they want?'" he wonders. "I'm not saying we're Picasso. But our designers, yes, they're little Picassos."