Visiting Alberto Alessi and a life of design heritage

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Display of all items in the current catalogue of Alessi products, centrally placed in the Alessi headquarters.

Entering Alberto Alessis office is like visiting a strange fusion of a writers refuge, the laboratory of an inventor and a living room full of the rich memories of a lifetime. The walls are filled with framed drawings by designers and artists such as Michael Graves and Richard Sapper. A polaroid shows Alberto and Philippe Starck enjoying the company of one another, laughing.

As I interview Alberto for my book on organizational authenticity he smokes cheroots and explains how he comissioned Salvadore Dali in 1971, during the first year he was in the family company. His father Carlos stopped the project immediately. Later the same day I am fortunate enough to see the single piece of art Dali got to develop for Alessi as Gloria Barcellini, the omniscient, sharp assistant of Alberto through fifteen years, shows me the factory and the chamber of treasures, the corporate museum. To my embarrassment – and Glorias amusement, I might add – I find myself exclaiming “What is it for?” as she shows me the Dali piece – a rare sight as it is one of many works that aren’t displayed publicly. The title, Gloria explains, is something like “Object without function”, a direct result of the mission of the then 24-year old Alberto, trying to bring art into the Alessi factory and make the company more exciting. He succeeded.

Al90906A decade later Alessi released a number of design-hits such as the Michael Graves kettle with a bird and Richard Sappers Espresso Coffee Maker 9090 which is on permanent display at MoMA and which I use at home on a daily basis. Alessi took off and became a world-famous design company.

Thousands of design objects produced since 1921 as well as drawings, memos and prototypes of all sorts are on display in Museo Alessi, the internal museum of Alessi. It serves as a source of inspiration and a collective memory of identity, ideas and solutions for the company. Unusual as it sounds the museum is not open to the public, the museum curator Francesca explained me. The primary function of the museum is to work as a tool for the management, designers and technicians as new products are developed and old ones are to stay true to their original idea. The museum stores some 17.000 items including prototypes built of paper and as I leave Francesca tells me that it’s her anniversary the next day. It has been 10 years since she opened doors to the museum that store the heritage of Alessi.

There are a number of Italian corporations celebrating and actively using their heritage as an internal tool or competence as well as a marketing manifestation. The companies include such wonderful companies as Ducati, Ferrari, Alessi and Piaggio. Together with a number of other Italian corporate museums they’ve formed an association for corporate museums. There is one other association of the same kind, way smaller, in Portugal. Danish Carlsberg has a corporate museum too, but not nearly as comprehensive and, more importantly, not seemingly a significant competence for the development of organizational identity and corporate strategy, nor a seriously prioritized part of the expression of the corporate identity.