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20 Minutes With Alberto Alessi

The maestro of design-y housewares on the international appeal of Italian design

For every novelty can opener or quirky, anthropomorphized kitchen utensil you spot today at big box retail stores, you have Alessi to thank. The (still) family-owned Italian company has been making housewares with a stylish twist since 1921. Sometimes outré, sometimes streamlined, Alessi's products—sugar bowls, cutlery, umbrella stands, pot holders, everything but the kitchen sink—are never boring, setting a precedent for scores of imitators in their wake. Among the more recognizable pieces in the archive (Marianne Brandt ashtray, Michael Graves tea kettle, Joe Colombo alarm clock) are goods dreamed up by over 300 designers.

As the company moves toward its 100th anniversary, Curbed sat down with Alberto Alessi, who's been working with the company since 1970 and is the grandson of the original founder. Alberto has focused much attention in the past four decades on commissioning new designers. Though American designers are relatively scant in Alessi's back catalog (Michael Graves, Stanley Tigerman, Richard Meier, and a Cranbrook graduate named John Truex, to name a few), it's not just Italians, either: Australia is the second most well-represented country on the roster.

In that same vein, students in Melbourne and Vienna--led by Australian architect Tom Kovac and professor Reiner Zettl—contributed to Alessi's installation at Wanted Design during NYCxDESIGN. The conceptual show called "Mutants" took a zeitgeist-y approach to designing everyday housewares by incorporating 3D modeling and the Internet of Things. Ever the quipster, here's what Alberto Alessi has to say about newfangled production, global tastes, and resurrecting the archives.

On 3D printing: "There are no new materials. But we are open to the possibility of research into the production method."

On positioning a retail business in a slow economy: "We don't have any difference in strategy, except that today we are more careful about price because our customers have different economic possibilities than 15 years ago. If your only customer is a design victim, then maybe price is not important."

On the frequently homogenous vision of global industry: "We are the opposite of global. We can sell an item almost anywhere because it's local--it well represents the local culture of a specific place. If it's by Philippe Starck, we want it smelling of France!"

On the merit of Italian design: "It needs to be original. If you're looking for the best French or British or Brazilian design... you need to look in the catalogs of Italian [manufacturers]."

On creating classics for every generation: "High quality means that an object well represents the time in which it was created." Of the bestsellers from the Alessi design catalog, three are from the 1920s, five from the 1950s, 10 from the '70s, 15 from the '80s, 15 from the '90s.

On reissuing classic designs: "I have a strong passion for bringing back products that are dead, I'm a necrophile."

On what could be designed better: The trash can. "We're working on it."