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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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In 1921 Giovanni Alessi Anghini, artisan entrepreneur, skilled in turning sheet metal and brass knobs, purchased

a piece of land in Omegna and began the manufacture by hand of goods for the house and table, such as coffee

pots and trays, in brass, nickel silver and copper. At first the production was exclusively to order for private

customers. The firm was set up under the name of FAO (Fratelli Alessi Omegna); this was changed in 1924 to

ALFRA (ALessi FRAtelli) and again in 1967 to Ceselleria Alessi. Since 1971 the company has traded under the

name of Alessi Spa. Right from the start the emphasis was on quality production and thanks to this, the Alessi

name soon became known to be synonymous with high quality.

In 1928 the company moved from Omegna to larger premises in the Crusinallo area, where there was also a

river to provide water power. The river still flows through the company headquarters today.

In the 1930s Carlo's eldest son, Giovanni, joined the company, following studies in industrial design in

Novara. His first role within the company was as designer, before taking over the general direction from his

father. Carlo Alessi was responsible for most of the products in the catalogue between the mid-1930s and 1945.

Archetypes of the first era of Italian design ' such as the Bomb'' and Cilindrica coffee makers designed by Carlo

Alessi ' date from this period and marked the beginning of the distinctive Alessi style, which is today

recognisable in most of the production, even when products are designed by external designers.

In the 1930s Alessi also began to export products abroad and experiment with the use of stainless steel instead

of the metals traditionally used in the district. During the same period the cold forging of metals was introduced

to replace the traditional turning.

In the 1940s Alessi was obliged to convert part of the production of household articles into military

production (stars for uniforms, mechanical parts for Savoia Marchetti aeroplanes, etc.) At this time Ettore '

Carlo's younger brother ' entered the company and began to make a significant contribution to improving

techniques in the cold forging and pressing of metals, leading the name of Alessi to become synonymous with

standards of excellence. After 1945, faced with the huge demand for brass ladles from the US army Alessi

decided to double the machinery and begin large-scale production. At this time Giovanni Alessi's 1930s

intuition was confirmed and stainless steel began to take over from chromed metals and silver-plated alloys.

Giovanni retired in the 1950s, leaving the running of the company to Carlo, who definitively gave up the design

side of the business. The firm became a limited company and began to take on an industrial dimension; the

premises were enlarged, machinery increased, mass production begun and new markets were sought abroad.

From 1955 to 1970: the First Steps towards a Design-based Company

In 1955 Ettore Alessi was in charge of the technical office and decided to bring further innovation into the way

of working by using external designers. In this way the design part of the activity was outsourced to independent

10 Alessi

designers, like for examples the architects, Carlo Mazzeri, Luigi Massoni and Anselmo Vitale. Several ranges of

products were designed in particular for the hotel sector, many of which are still in the catalogue today.

However, the first relations with external designers were not problem-free on the management side and

particularly on the technical side. In fact many brilliant original projects led to technical problems in terms of

production and were abandoned. Ettore Alessi also strengthened the design team in the internal technical office,

leading to the launch of some products that became best sellers, like the metal wire baskets and fruit bowls. At

this point brass and nickel silver definitively left the scene and stainless steel took over. The hotel sector was

very important for Alessi and favourites such as stainless steel serving dishes or the wide range of soup tureens,

vegetable dishes and sauce boats came onto the market.

Alessi soon began to classify the production and collections into programs, in other words into sets of

products for the end market that were homogenous in terms of style and type. It was the so-called 'Programma

4' ' designed by Massoni and Mazzeri ' that represented a cultural turning point for Alessi, introducing the

concept of 'author', 'project' and 'design' to the world of household goods. In 1957, the 'Programma 4' shaker,

ice bucket and ice tongs were selected for the XI Triennale in Milan. It was the first time that Alessi objects had

appeared in an exhibition of products of industrial design and it was the beginning of what was to become

Alessi's mission: working in the sector of applied arts. The 1960s saw further expansion of the plant and

increased presence abroad.

From 1970 to 1983: the Great Divide

In the 1970s the third generation of the Alessi family entered the company. In 1970, just after graduating in Law,

Carlo's eldest son, Alberto, started working in the marketing and sale of new products. The second son, Michele,

joined the company in 1975, looking after administration-finance and organization. Finally, Alessio started

working for the company in 1980 and in 1984 Ettore Alessi's elder son, Stefano, also joined the organisation.

The corporate structure was soon divided into various departments and areas of responsibility: Alberto took care

of new product development, marketing and communication; Michele was in charge of finance and business

organisation; Alessio dealt with distribution and Stefano purchasing.

When Alberto entered the company there was a radical change in the way they worked with designers; in fact

alongside the industrial designers, architects and artists were asked to contribute ideas. These artists and

architects included Michael Graves, Aldo Rossi, Ettore Sottsass and Achille Castiglioni. The idea to open up to

new ideas 'in particular from the art world ' was based on the desire to turn Alessi production more towards

design. The concept was in fact soon extended from the product itself to packaging, graphics, the work space,

stands at fairs and merchandising.

The first two programs that Alberto set up were radically innovative both for the company and for the sector

and district. The first, called 'Alessi d'apr''s', was based on the utopian idea of mass consumption of art replicas

designed by artists like Gi'' Pomodoro and Salvador Dal''. This program only lasted three years due to serious

production problems and lack of success on the market. If, on the one hand artists were little inclined to design

objects destined for production on an industrial scale, on the other the market found it difficult to accept objects

that were so far removed from the usual perception of 'household articles'. The second program set up by

Alberto Alessi at this time was the famous 'Programma 8', a vast and complex design process, which gradually

developed a coordinated system of objects with the help of designers, Franco Sargiani and Eija Helander, who

were asked to design just one oil cruet. With 'Programma 8', Alessi introduced a series of articles that were

highly adaptable and flexible in use. They were made in stainless steel to underline further the fact that they were

functional and practical, as well as being aimed at the new working class. The new smaller working class homes

demanded a more efficient use of domestic space, thus modular household articles that were square or

rectangular in shape. 'Programma 8' ' which was in production until 1985 - 1987 although some articles

remained in the catalogue for decades after ' marked the firm's passage from metalworking plant to 'Italian

Design Factory'. The key feature of Italian design is the ability to use traditional materials and to constantly

renew product quality focusing on the research and quality of the finishing.

In the following years many other designers started to work with Alessi: Munari, Coppola, Grignani, Tovaglia

and Confalonieri put together 'Programma 7' in 1972; Sottsass extended 'Programma 5' and became one of

Alessi's most prolific collaborators, designing articles in different materials: steel, glass, plastic, wood and china.

In 1977 Sottsass introduced Richard Sapper, who began to work with Alessi, putting his name to objects and

projects that met with great success, including the famous '9090' coffee maker, of which over 1.3 million pieces

have been made and which won the 'Golden Compass' in 1979 and was exhibited at the MOMA in New York.

Alessi 11

Important figures in the design world worked with Alessi in this period: Sapper, Sargiani Helander,

Pomodoro, Cascella, Coppola, Confalonieri, Sottsass, Mendini. From 1979 Mendini became the Alessi family's

consultant and partner in defining the firm's design strategy (responsible for the designer network, composition

of product portfolio, etc.) From now on the company was seen as 'research laboratory in the field of applied arts'

placing itself halfway between industry and art.

From 1983 on

In its relentless drive for research and invention, Alessi began in the 1980s to experiment with production in new

materials and new technologies: wood, china and ceramic, glass, electricity and electronics. A new internal

function ' 'Edizione' ' was created with the objective of paying special attention to the growing role of the

external designer network, defining an area of competence that was distinct from that of the Technical Office.

Alessi thus defined its function as that of product 'publisher', giving the external designers total freedom over

the actual design. However, this activity soon became so much a part of the way of working that the distinction

between the two functions was made redundant.

In 1983 the 'Officina Alessi' brand was created alongside the Alessi brand. The objective of the new brand

was to experiment with innovative shapes, new materials, functions and production methods that went beyond

the logic of mass production. At the same time a reorganisation of international product distribution was started

in order to identify potential subsidiaries or exclusive agents in some strategic markets (Germany, France, UK

and USA) and to reduce drastically the number of sales outlets. In Italy alone the number of outlets was reduced

from 4 000 to 1 200.

The next few years saw the start of a number of successful strategic ventures. Up to then Alessi had used only

local suppliers belonging to the VCO houseware district, with which the company maintained generally informal

relationships.

In 1988 Alessi took over Piazza Battista, a company founded in 1865 and specialized in the production of

small wooden articles for the kitchen and table, production of which had ceased 20 years earlier. In 1989 Alessi

published the first catalogue of wooden articles under the 'Twergi' brand name and acquired another small firm,

'Tendentse', founded in 1985, to develop the manufacture of household articles in china and ceramic. In the case

of both 'Twergi' and 'Tendentse', the objects were designed by Alessi's external network of designers.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Alessi set up some 'meta-projects', to explore the emotional structure of the

objects and developed the first range of articles made in plastic. In fact the designers Alberto Alessi was working

with started to propose ideas that were brilliant but difficult to realise in steel. In this sense, plastic was the ideal

solution to continue to innovate the world of household articles in the most varied shapes and colours. In the

words of Alberto Alessi: 'The image that we want to convey with our products is not just linked to the material

used but also to the project, the design, the capacity to communicate. Manufacturing in plastic has enabled us to

expand the range and possibility of products considerably, maintaining however our solid traditions'. The

introduction of plastic products ' above all with the 'Family Follows Fiction' meta-project, started in 1993 and

aimed at reproducing childhood images ' caused some perplexity and scepticism amongst sector observers and

opinion leaders but allowed Alessi to achieve a considerable increase in turnover as well as reach a new market

segment.

Alessi did not only change materials in order to encourage research and experimenting with the notions of

emotion, play and irony, but also set up the 'Centro Studi Alessi' (CSA), dedicated to coordinating the work of

young designers and a wide range of other professional figures (designers, sociologists, semiologists,

anthropologists and opinion leaders), coordinated by Laura Polinoro. The CSA also organised workshops '

planning seminars ' around the world to study the significance and perception of the objects.

With the developing product catalogue, Alessi moved the manufacture of some articles to European suppliers

and acquired a Brazilian company dedicated to cutlery production. In 1992, Alessi and Philips set up a

partnership ' which ended in 1994 ' for the manufacture of four household appliances (an electric toaster, an

electric kettle, a juice squeezer and an espresso coffee machine), which did not completely meet with the favour

of the market.

In 1998 the Alessi Museum was opened in Crusinallo di Omegna. It was designed by Mendini and run by

Francesca Appiani. At the end of the 1990s, Alessi decided to enter a new sector with the 'Comics' range of

kitchen and table linen. The project was not a success due to the fact that Alessi did not thoroughly understand

what was necessary to operate in a new sector and offered products that were high quality but over-priced,

underestimating the production problems.

12 Alessi

It was during this period that almost all production was moved abroad and part of it to the Far East. The

decision to produce in countries like Korea, China, Vietnam and India was taken because of government

incentives, low labour costs and the availability of new and technologically advanced supply firms.

The beginning of 2000 saw a new development at Alessi: joint ventures with other firms working in very

different product areas. The aim was to create objects that featured a mixture of eccentricity, style, irony and

elegance. In July 2007 Alessandro Bonfiglioli (external to the family) was appointed General Manager of Alessi

and the top management was restructured: Michele, Alessio and Stefano Alessi now occupy exclusively

executive roles, while Alberto Alessi continues to direct the strategic activities linked to the design function

management. Today Alessi exports 65 per cent of turnover ' with four subsidiaries in France, Germany,

England, USA. It has a network of over 5 000 sales outlets in more than 60 countries. The company is planning

to set up 14 own brand stores (showroom and flagship) and 175 Shop in shops in strategic parts of the globe.

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