In the short twisting drive between the Alessi design factory in the foothills of the Alps near Italy’s border with Switzerland and his home at Lake Orta, Alberto Alessi wants to talk wine. He has a reason. The president, and third generation, of the eponymous family company, known for its stylish design of everyday objects from coffee pots to lemon squeezers, has just launched his own wine label.
Gates swing open to reveal a large, elegant house surrounded by terraced vineyards, which fall away to Lake Orta and the tiny island of San Giulio. It is a dream spot and unlike nearby Lake Maggiore remains one of northern Italy’s better kept secrets.
The origins of the pale stone and wood building date to a 16th-century cascina, or farmhouse, which was rebuilt – with stone recycled from the site – along the lines of a later 19th-century farm by the Italian architect Alessandro Mendini between 2003 and 2009.
Emily, the family’s dog, joins us on a tour of the three-hectare vineyard where Alessi checks the vines, pointing out the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. He then leads into the house, straight down to a state-of-the-art wine production area and cellar. As well as his passion for design, Alessi has a great interest in wine. “Ever since I was 40, my dream has been to produce wine. When we discovered this house 15 years ago I realised it was possible,” he says.
We sample a Chardonnay ageing in an acacia barrel, siphoned into specially designed tasting glasses. “When Pliny wrote about the wine of Lago d’Orta, 2,000 years ago, he said it was too acid,” says Alessi. The acidity is still there, giving the white wine a welcome bite and the red a distinctive punch.
The wine is called “La Signora Eugenia e il passero solitario” (Madam Eugenia and the lonely sparrow), named after the house, Cascina Eugenia, and the local sparrows. It is sold in conical bottles, reminiscent of laboratory flasks, created by Alessi himself who says he was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci sketches. The design, named “Leo”, is the first object he has directly designed, although he has overseen the creation and production of countless objects for the kitchen and table by renowned Italian and international designers such as Michael Graves, Aldo Rossi and Philippe Starck.
The bottles are not intended to be throwaway items and Alessi is keen for people to reuse them as decanters or vases. Not surprisingly, the limited production wine in these bottles is expensive. The 2009 red wine is priced at €110, the white at €160 and a 2008 sweet late November wine at €220.
Back on the ground-floor in a long room comprising the kitchen, dining and living areas, Alessi introduces his wife Laura. This space is the centrepiece of the house; at one end is a stainless steel kitchen with a half-moon shaped counter and work area where Alessi pieces such as the “Todo” giant cheese and nutmeg grater, designed by Richard Sapper, are used daily; at the other end is an inviting sofa in front of an open fireplace. Just by the kitchen is a long indoor swimming pool where Alessi exercises every morning. A 14-seat table faces out towards the lake.
“We very rarely have 14 people here as Laura likes to do it all herself,” says Alessi. “Although I like to cook, I’m not good at organising it.” Most meals, therefore, are small family gatherings with their 13-year-old daughter, Emma, particularly since Alessi has been busy with his wine project. On sunny weekends he enjoys learning to use a solar-ray cooker that resembles a satellite dish. “Last weekend I did a roast chicken which took two hours to cook.”
So where does the company, founded by his grandfather Giovanni Alessi in 1921 to make tableware and household objects, go next? Alessi does not want to launch into a corporate strategy. “I refuse to look at the future too closely. Do what you do well and then smile. We know we are able to do trays, coffee pots and other household objects,” he says.
At the Salone del Mobile furniture fair in Milan last April, alongside its spring/summer collection, the company presented 70 of its best-known designs, such as the 1978 classic stainless steel and glass condiment set by Ettore Sottsass to the quirky whistling bird kettle by Michael Graves from 1985 and Stefano Giovannoni’s 1993 plastic cactus lavatory brush. The selection is just a handful of more than 2,000 objects in production.
Alessi, who opened the company up to external international designers in the 1970s, believes it is producing too many products every year and is reducing the number of objects in the spring and autumn collections each year from 60 to 40. Although about 350 designers approach the company each year with new ideas, only about 30 make it to production. “In design it is difficult to pass from the idea to the product,” he says. Nevertheless he admits to “always being surprised at Alessi by new designers”.
In the pipeline are some new designs from the Italian architect Michele de Lucchi, who created his first design for the Alessi spring/summer collection this year: a bamboo tray titled “Quattro Muri e due case” (Four walls and two houses). De Lucchi is now working on a coffee maker, a second tray and possibly a series of pots and pans, says Alessi.
High-quality craftsmanship and production work have always been part of the brand’s cachet and, unsurprisingly, Alessi believes Italian factories are the best at this because of a long link between industrial design and production. The Alessi factory works only in stainless steel, so objects in glass, wood and plastic are outsourced to other factories in Italy and elsewhere. About two-thirds of Alessi porcelain products are produced in Germany and stoneware production recently started in Portugal.
We walk up to the open galleried library above the living room, passing an armchair on the turn of the staircase. From a distance it looks as if it is made from marble but it is Ron Arad’s New Orleans armchair, a piece made from polyester and fibreglass and designed for his workshop in 1999.
The library walls are lined with rare books, documents and prints. A beautifully illustrated book of birds published in 1684. Alessi turns to a page showing a drawing of a sparrow. He is an avid collector and keeps a watchful eye on book catalogues, helped by friends who sometimes spot a special item on the market for him.
Before Alessi dashes off to his next meeting I ask him about the next generation of family members and the future of the company. Two nephews, Matteo and Lucca, already work in the business in international sales, while Alessi’s niece, Chiara, writes about design and another nephew, Giovanni, is a designer, but neither works for the company.
Alessi points out that none of the young family members have shown any interest in the work he does, which he describes as “marketing with a passion for design”, but he does not appear to be too worried about it. “At the moment I have good people around me with about 10 young Alessis in the team, although they are not part of the family. We’ll see what happens in the future.”
Photographs: Mattia Zoppellaro