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Alberto Alessi always dreamed of becoming an architect. Instead, he joined the family firm—upscale Italian homewares company Alessi—and did the next best thing: hired them. In his 36 years as CEO, Alberto has tapped some of world's best known architects, transforming Alessi from a manufacturer of boring stainless steel tableware into a design powerhouse. "Architects are our source of inspiration," says Alberto.
It was Alberto's desire to "do something a little less boring" that brought the brand into the avant garde. Founded in 1921 by Alberto's grandfather Giovanni, the business began as metalworks factory, manufacturing basic copper, brass, and nickel-plated tableware. But Alberto's decision to enlist some of the world's best-known artists and architects including Salvador Dali, Michael Graves, Aldo Rossi, and Philippe Starck helped Alberto and the company turn everyday household items into attention-grabbing works of art—albeit at tabletop scale.
Many are now recognizable design classics such as Philippe Starck's arachno-inspired Juicy Salif lemon squeezer, Michael Graves' Kettle with Bird, or Ettore Sottsass' domed oil and vinegar cruets. "They combine functional design with extraordinary aesthetics, often making people smile in the process," says Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand UK in London.
AGE OF PLASTIC.The success of these collaborations led Alessi to push the boundaries of creativity. Hoping to lure young designers, in 1990 Alberto established the Alessi Research Center at the company's headquarters in the Northern Italian town of Crusinallo di Omegna. Soon Alessi was hiring not just architects, but designers and animators. "They brought a different language that was playful and cartoon-like," Alberto says.
With their urging, Alessi began embracing new materials, most notably plastic. Easier to mold and cheaper to produce, the brightly colored plastic designs came to reflect the wit and irreverence that is now Alessi's trademark. Quirky characters sit astride mugs to filter tea, hang upside down on the inside of container lids, and stand upright to grind pepper.
Many have become best-sellers (Alessi is a private company and does not disclose sales figures) including the Mr. Suicide bath plug and the aptly titled Mr. Cold, a dispenser that squirts liquid soap from its nose. "Moving into plastic was a bold thing to do," says Clare Brass, campaign leader for the Design Council in London who formerly designed for Alessi. "They took an inexpensive material and made it into a design must-have."
LEARNING FROM FAILURE.Not all of its creations have proved to be winners. In 1971, Alberto commissioned legendary artist Salvador Dali to design a series of pressed-steel artworks. But Alberto's father pulled the plug on the venture, convinced the works would never sell. High-profile but unsuccessful collaborations that did make it to store shelves include Philippe Starck's Hot Bertaa kettle. Elegantly minimalist in design, there was just one problem: It was far too complicated to operate. "You shouldn't need an instruction manual to use a kettle," Alberto says.
For Alberto, failure is integral to innovation. Only by taking risks and experimenting, he says, is great design possible. With that in mind, the company expects to have at least one, maybe two, "major fiascoes" each year. These range from projects getting cancelled after two years of development, to products getting pulled off the shelf due to design faults.
"Almost every architect and designer working with me has had their own fiasco," he says. Without such creative disasters, he believes Alessi would be in danger of losing its leadership in design.
IN THE BOUDOIR.So far, there's little sign of that happening. Recognizing the almost unlimited potential to leverage the brand, Alessi is now working with outside companies to produce everything from textiles to watches to razors to cell phones. Six years ago, it struck an alliance with Germany's Taptenfabrik to produce brightly colored wallpaper featuring some of Alessi's most famous images.
The company then moved into household textiles with Belgium's Lyntex, and watches with Seiko, cordless telephones with Siemens, and razors with Philips. There's even a range of Alessi-designed bathtubs and toilets.
More recently, Alessi has lent its aesthetic to cars. Last year, Alessi joined forces with Italian auto maker Fiat. Together, they produced the Fiat Panda Alessi, a brightly colored, two-toned car with wireless Internet access and the Alessi man emblazoned on its wheels. Next up: an Alessi-designed mobile phone line and Alessi stationary. "We put our design management skills at the disposal of other companies to develop a new range of products that reflect the Alessi spirit," Alberto says.
DESIGN EDGE.So far, the collaborations have proven mutually beneficial. Alessi controls the product design while partners handle all manufacturing and distribution. In exchange for using the Alessi brand, the companies pay Alessi royalties of up to 15% of the product's retail price. For Alessi, it's a chance to extend its brand to a wider market through licenses, without relinquishing creative control.
And for Siemens (SI), Fiat, and others, the collaboration gives their products a new edge. "Businesses are hungry for innovation and this is a opportunity to get a step ahead of the competition," says Interbrand's Clifton.
Now Alessi's designs are accessible to the masses. This year, Alberto made the decision to divide his line into three parts. The most exclusive and experimental, Officina Alessi, is a limited range of expensive items produced in batches of no more than 2,000 pieces. Alessi is the company's midprice mass-produced range, and A di Alessi, is the most affordable with products mainly made of plastic. "It's challenging to make high-quality design democratic," Alberto says. "But I want to ensure that Alessi is accessible to everyone."
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