‘Pass the salt Stefano’ – inside Alessi’s world of design

Matteo Alessi is enjoying the week-end with his family; he has spent the previous two days with the company’s agents in Italy and the week ahead is, he said, a “very intense period”. The company’s budget review will look at how the year has gone and involves “re-projecting the numbers for the whole of 2017”. Alessi is the chief commercial officer, Europe and North America, of the eponymous family firm, founded in 1921 as a cold-working metal manufacturer of household products.

In the 1950s, Alessi moved from hand-manufacturing to mass production, replacing soft metals with stainless steel. The workshop designed its products in-house until the 1970s, when it began collaborating with leading artists and designers around the world. Then, the business set out to redefine the relationship between consumers and their products, taking it beyond mere functionality and pioneering the idea of an emotional connection between the two.

Browsing Alessi’s 2017 collection, you can’t help being drawn to its Lilliput salt and pepper set. Designed by Stefano Giovannoni, a magnet allows the containers to be positioned firmly on the base, but they can also be attached to the steel stem, “creating playful new configurations typical of Giovannoni’s designs”. The descrip-tion adds: “It is directly influenced by the spirit of the F.F.F. (Family Follows Fiction) metaproject, which from the 1990s onwards explored the object creation process followed by children and primitive cultures.”

XpoNorth 2017: The Power of Provenance: In conversation with Matteo Alessi and Harris Tweed Authority, 2.45pm, Wednesday 7 June –  La Scala Cinema, Inverness.

Matteo Alessi joined in 2005, after working outside the company for two years; a pre-condition, along with a master’s degree and the ability to speak a second language, of any family member’s candidature to apply. He started in London, in charge of the company’s UK market. He was a champion of e-commerce and Alessi’s presence online, which he has described as “one of those moments where I was considered the young nephew rather than the CCO of the company”.

Matteo Alessi

Today, change is still an issue: “I guess the next big project for Alessi is to navigate successfully through the generational passage we are facing  at the moment. It always is one of the most critical times for a family business and we have to be careful,” he said in an email Q&A. But that does not stop the work, most recently exemplified by its partnership with Delta, the US airline, which commissioned Alessi to “curate a modern, stylish and functional collection of service products and tableware”, part of a multi-billion dollar investment in customer experience.

“Delta was thinking about developing something completely different from what had been done before,” said Matteo. “It was a very long, and very interesting, project for us since it meant learning a lot about the airline industry and how to apply our approach to design to a completely new environment. What we wanted to achieve, together with Delta, was an outcome that would help elevate the customer experience when in flight through all the little details design is made of. I think we definitely achieved that!”

Matteo said that Alessi sees design “not as a simple marketing tool, but rather as the main element of our mission; we are mediators between the world of applied arts and the market.” Asked about examples of Scottish design, he said: “Apart from all the historic landmarks, what comes to mind is the Falkirk Wheel. I visited it with my family in 2014, and I really liked it because it is a very good example of the fact that design is not only about aesthetics but also about other ele-ments, like evolving the performance or functionality of an object.”

He will be appearing at XpoNorth along with Lorna Macaulay, chief executive of the Harris Tweed Author-ity. “I think companies like Alessi and Harris Tweed, though in a different way, can add a lot of value thanks to provenance, because it will help us avoid going down the simpler road of ‘mainstream’ design,” he said. “We should keep leveraging the differences generated by provenance.”