Italian design production "could disappear,"
says Alberto Alessi

| 7 comments

Alberto-Alessi-portrait

News: Italy's design manufacturing capability is at risk of disappearing, according to the president of design brand Alessi.

The country's producers could go the same way as its great designers of the last century and be outsourced abroad, Alberto Alessi told Dezeen.

"The risk is that it disappears," he said in an interview in Milan last week during the Salone del Mobile. "Maybe Italian production will disappear."

Alessi said that until the 1970s, Italian design was characterised by Italian designers working for Italian manufacturers.

"Then during the 80s we had some important change," Alessi said, as Italian industry started to work with foreign designers. "Design expressed through the catalogue of Italian design factories was not any more Italian," he said.

Today, he said, "maybe the second element, Italian production, will disappear."

The company, which specialises in kitchen accessories and tableware, was founded in 1921 by Alberto Alessi's grandfather Giovanni Alessi and today employs around 500 people at its factory in Crusinallo on Lake Orta in northern Italy. Its annual turnover is around €100 million.

One of the best-known of Italy's design-led manufacturers, Alessi started out as a producer of stainless steel utensils for the catering industry but, like many successful Italian "design factories", began collaborating with external designers in the fifties and sixties.

Famous Alessi collaborations include the 9090 espresso machine designed by Richard Sapper, the Juicy Salif lemon squeezer by Philippe Starck and the Record watch by Achille Castiglioni.

Foreign competition and Italy's lingering economic woes are creating problems for Italy's design houses. In May last year Claudio Luti, president of both the Kartell brand and the Salone del Mobile, said the failure of the country's small, family run firms to seek investment and explore foreign markets was a "big, big mistake."

Last September Patrizia Moroso, head of Italian furniture brand Moroso, said Italy was "in crisis" while Milan was "sitting in the past".

"Italy... is very much in a crisis because it doesn't want to change, doesn't want to move and is becoming very old,” she said, adding that the country was "losing the culture behind production.”

Alberto Alessi said his company was committed to maintaining its production base in Italy but said he was "concerned" that Italian manufacturing would go the same way as Italian design, and migrate abroad.

But he added that, even if this happened, the notion of "Italian design" would continue, because of the country's unique culture of collaboration between designer and manufacturer.

"I think that [Italy] will continue to have Italian design because it has not only to do with the nationality of the designer but it has to do with a culture," he said. "We are a kind of mediator. The core of our activity is to mediate endlessly between on one side the best creativity in product design from all over the world and on the other side, customers."

"This culture makes Italian design factories the best labs to offer to designers to make real their designs," he added. "When they enter the door of Alessi, the designer or architect immediately feels he will meet people who will do their best to help him express what he has inside."

  • Vittorio Tauber

    Oh, I was just wondering when the campaign against the -most vibrant for many years- Milan Design Week was about to start by manipulating some questioning statement of a single manufacturer with a quote of another one!

    Anyway to put it simply, today it’s nonsense to talk about Italian design or German design or Dutch design the same way as 40 years ago. Globalisation means designers, firms, skills, facilities, features are entangled, entwined and influenced by one another.

    Italian design, whatever it is, is still the state-of-the-art, Milan Design Week is the undebatable hub of design in all its facets, and from what everyone has recently seen in Milan there is no way to dispossess this primacy in the next few years. In the long run, who knows – we’re all dead, anyway.

    • Kevin Quigley

      Without wanting to start a war of words on the relative merits of national design capabilities, I think that statement about Milan design week needs focussing in on furniture alone. Milan is certainly not the design hub for electronics, industrial products, automotive, medical, architecture, housewares etc.

      There is more to “design” than a few sketches and badly constructed one off exhibit pieces. Perhaps that is the real issue here?

  • Kevin Quigley

    Somewhat puzzled by this. Surely of all the Italian “design factories” Alessi were the ones who actively promoted the use of non-Italian designers? I am hard pushed to think of a “celebrity” designer that has not produced something for Alessi.

    I am also bemused by the statement “country’s unique culture of collaboration between designer and manufacturer”.

    I have been a professional product designer for 25 years and every single project was a collaboration between designer and manufacturer. I think perhaps what he is actually referring to is the culture in Italy, where payment is based on royalty rather than fees?

    That is a rather different scenario is it not?

  • workshop

    If production can be outsourced then the often mentioned great tradition of Italian craftsmanship is obviously not needed anymore to produce contemporary products.

    In this clip about the Branca chair (Mattiazzi) I see people on highly skilled machines, but not people doing highly skilled labour:
    http://vimeo.com/20684417

    I wonder if this clip is representative of how Italian furniture companies work and if the talk of tradition, skills etc. is perhaps just marketing fluff.

    That aside I don’t mind companies that consciously stay small and local. Unfortunately this mindset does not seem to carry the economy of a country anymore.

  • John

    I’m not sure Italian design is going anywhere.

    • Romain_M

      Ouch!

  • zara

    It’s surely a positive that this debate is taking place? Milan cannot just assume supremacy.