Vintage View: Alessi coffee pot

YEARS ago, caught up in rush-hour traffic on a bus, I was thrust up against a warring young couple.

Vintage View: Alessi coffee pot

Swinging on a grab-hold with someone’s elbow up my nose, I shamelessly dipped in and out of the pair’s urgent conversation.

“Why ....? (insert name of down-trodden, hypnotised male). I simply just don’t understand how you possibly could have forgotten.”

She had an acid way with her ‘s’ and ‘f’s. I was afraid of her, never mind Bozo. He muttered a few flabby platitudes, pushing his toe into the rubber matting. She considered a moment, glaring at her fallen hero through tweezed brows.

“It’s off — I just don’t think you really ever cared.”

She all but spat the words at him — her lips ragged and ugly with emotion, like a ruby torn pocket. So, what had caused this pratfall of love’s young dream? I dangled closer for the denouement.

Turns out, it was a sleek Italian interloper — or, more specifically — a kettle. Not any kettle, mind you. She was not a complete cow. He (the nameless design philistine) had not picked up an Alessi kettle our suffering heroine had ordered from a department store.

Alessi fans are demented about the white stuff, and this just proved the point to me. They don’t just like Alessi products; they cannot live without them. This derailed relationship, which was probably distinguished by extensive pouting in the past, would never have worked.

Alessi was founded in 1921, by Giovanni Alessi, on the Italian Alpine border as Fratelli Alessi Omegna, an engineering workshop. Giovanni was a skilled lathe worker, who appreciated the enduring appeal of the handmade object and the quivering potential for mass production of technically advanced machinery. From the start, Alessi had a reputation for perfectly finished, useful, well-made table-top wares in chromium, nickel and silver-plated brass — white metal, above all.

When Giovanni’s son, Carlo, became chief designer in the 1930s, his work, based on the tenets of his training in industrial design, became core, celebrated products. By the mid-1950s, his brother, Etorre, took a seminal step, reaching out to external designers and developing a ‘technical office’ rather than designing them in-house, a tradition which has endured, making Alessi’s pieces unpredictable, original and exciting year after year.

By the ’50s, the company was working predominantly in stainless steel, a versatile material suited to their domestic and commercial customers in hotel, catering and business. The names to look for in this mid-century ware are architect/designers, Carlo Mazzer and Luigi Massoni (both designed the 870 cocktail shaker), and Anselmo Vitale (his work includes the 137 butter dish), the creatives who brought Alessi as far as exhibiting ice buckets, shakers and tongs at the XI Milan Triennial in 1957.

For our shrewish commuter, it was the 1970s that saw the arrival of the iconic Alessi kitchen and dining ware, for which the company would become a worldwide brand in the hands of Alberto Alessi. Alberto has a passionate belief in the way people identify themselves through the things they surround themselves with at home.

He saw no difference between the importance of art and the importance of functional objects in meeting a person’s emotional and spiritual needs — even kitchenware could have a deep, metaphysical presence. Continuing Etorre’s work with outside designers, he set up what we now know as Alessi’s Factory of Design, which is committed to combining the strength of industrial production with artisanal quality.

A series of historic meetings at the Design Factory, throughout the 1970s and 80s, developed Alessi’s growing thread of international design. These included the voices and ideas of style gurus, Franco Sargiani, Ettore Sottsass (The 5070 condiment set, described as ‘architecture for the table’), Achille Castiglioni (dry cutlery set), Alessandro Mendini (fruit mama and Anna-G opener, both1990s), genius architect, Aldo Rossi (la Conica coffee pots and more), Michael Graves (bird-whistle kettle) and designer Philippe Starck, (juicy Salif citrus press and many others).

Plastic, wood and glass were gradually added to the collection. Many of the 1970s and ’80s pieces are still available today, making the collection of early, scuffed Alessi tableware questionable.

The most important, and recognisable, pieces from the 1980s are the designs by architects, Stefano Giovannoni and Guido Venturini, of King Kong Productions, in particular the little cut-out figures that typify their Girontondo ware.

Their more current whimsy is still on offer by Alessi. Mass-produced, vintage Alessi is often the price of brand-new examples from the same press moulds, but if you do want something early, look for Alfra Alessi in the base stamp, as this was only used until 1967.

The 100% Make Up vases are something of an urban legend for collectors, as only 100 of each design were made, in the late 1980s (10,000 worldwide).

Not all Alessi pieces succeeded and many plastics read as second-hand Euro-trash — fun, but not highly desirable. For my part, I’m still deeply saddened by my encounter with my Italian-loving Munster miss.

If only that oaf had hurled himself through the swing doors of the bus, and walked the extra 500 yards in the lashing rain and collected her Richard Sapper-designed bird-whistle kettle. Just imagine. Those two could have had children by now, silenced by stylish, stainless steel spoons crammed into their mouths.

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