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Interview/Visit with Dr Alberto Alessi – Design Management in Commerce


I once said to a design colleague; “Milan is not a beautiful city, but I like it, and he said, “It is elegant, no it has an elegance!” and that is the story of the design city, the industrial city of Italy’s Lombardia, its north, nestled amongst the Italian and Swiss Alps, but hardly ever seeing them because of the Beijing type smog, I have found especially in Autumn. And it was on such a day that I drove from Milan to Crusinallo.

My appointment with was made by Cristina Franchi, Alberto Alessi’s personal assistant, it was for10.00am and on the one and a half hour way there we saw nothing but a whitish gray, that is industrial Milan, no mountains no lakes.

I last met Alessi in 1995 when he visited Australia for the Grande tour that I organised for UNSW and we reminisced a little of 95 and then I told him of my research and my proposed line of questioning.

Q            Do, in your view the majority of commercial organisations recognise design as a discipline to be managed specifically? If yes, how is it recognised? Identified?

A            Depends on size, all mass production industry design, but this is less from evidencial but more subjective. It depends more on the individual. But I find that design is still put into a secondary level, many of the business people that I meet think that design is marketing, almost without exception.

Q         Do you believe art or design is considered by management to be important to the profitable/efficient operation of commercial organisations?

A            Yes and yes, but still it is a fake we still get extremely boring design. Companies continuously speak about design, it is just words, they use their publicity machines to speak about design, but still they copy. The Fiat Stillo is an example, it is a copy of the 20 year old VW Golf it was, it is popular so they copy it.

Q          In your writings you often use car design as the example of the worst copying of the least interesting design. I recall you words to Phillipe Stark in 1990; “For years I have been sick of the attitude of the international producers of utilitarian cars: I find them increasingly boring, without spirit or emotion.   .    .    .    .  I wish to show them how to escape from the vicious circle of pure manufacturing technique (and from copying from each other) and leave more room for creativity. I wish to conceive and realise a car which is entirely new, poetic, full of emotion!”

So what do you think about the Smart car?

A            I don’t like it, I must say… but I think it is good, I guess my answer is that it is “not what I would have done!” 

Q            What formal procedures have you observed in commercial organisations for the selection of consultant designers, the briefing, and the approvals of projects…?   How can consultant design be placed in the decision making hierarchy?

A            To be truthful mass production industries main feature is to be ‘not disturbing’ and as a result there are very few main designers design managers in industry who are disturbing, very few examples, Richard Sapper at IBM was one of the strongest, Peter Berens at AEG, maybe Dieter Rams at Broaun in the early years, but he is not so disturbing but rather soothing, certainly he was not offering the gastromic view of design that I have spoken about.

Designers have become very good in mediation, the good mediator between the market and the manufacturer.

Our current methodology is:

We are experimenting in this area, always, we learned much from our experience with the Philips Alessi products and we have established, I guess you would call it a liscensing division, but it is different because we do not make the products but rather we act as a consultant to design manage the development, we do the strategic marketing and we do the communication… our partners do the engineering, the production and the logistics and of course it carries the Alessi brand.

We are currently working with Siemens and we have some three partners in the bathroom products area.

We have gone this way because we have found that, the process of design in commerce is still not understood, companies set up strong design departments but are still unable to design. They continue to produce design which is ‘stupid’ a tool for marketing. Many of these companies have even tried to work with the top designers, the media and finally the market but still they have failed. The Newson ford car is an example, it is a game for them.

What they don’t understand is that design has to be borderline, as close as possible to the borderline, between the possible and the not yet possible, where we are almost not ready to accept. This cannot be measured, but it is done through intuition, through sensibility, and by working close to the borderline you have for a while a monopoly.

And finally the long answer to a short question we are still experimenting, you will recall the Tea and Coffee piazza’s of the early eigthies, that was a great project and I found many new designers at that time and we are now doing it again with 20 architects, we have two from Australia, John Denton and

Q            What are the cultural and social issues directly affecting design decisions you made in design projects in commercial organisations?   Do you  articulated these to your clients prior to undertaking a project?

A         Our practice and behaviour depends on the designers we work with, we try to be light on the process, we let them interpret design and society. And of course some got to the left and some go to the right, if you can talk about design in those terms. I do not have a position, but we do have some basic points.

If you speak with Ettore Sottsass he will tell you he is unhappy with our current direction, he is unhappy with some of our designers, this is his position, I respect it, and he still designs.

I spoke with Ettore Sottsass some days later and he said: “I even don’t like his new direction, it is conditioned by the situation.  .  .  .  .  .       I have told him I will not work for you, designing for only selling only, for sales. .  .  .  .    Anybody who makes a fire lighter out of plastic cannot be serious… I have told Alberto so.

And Alessi went on to say: But as I said we do have our position, we do not use PVC, our packaging speaks for itself.

Q            Do you think design and art are considered by commercial organisations to be a cultural issue or just a business activity?

A         The second always. They think maybe, but to behave in a coherent way is different…. They don’t….   Some commerce try to think in this way, like say Stephano Mazarno, a friend at Philips, but they do not practice it… the commerce is too strong. Design, good design brings high turbulence with it, to have creativity you need turbulence, and so they treat design as a business activity to avoid the turbulence.

Q         Do you believe in general commercial organisations feel that they have a cultural role within the community? and do you believe that they believe that they can use design and art to assist in fulfilling this role…..?

A         I think they do believe so! By definition they have a cultural role, but I cannot see them making design and art as a cultural developer as we do, try to do. 


The discussion between Alessi  and Sottsass is a healthy one between people in my view who know the issues understand the edge, it is also conducted in an intellectual atmosphere with true signs of love and respect. Alessi says of Sottsass in his writing: “He is something of a philosopher bursting with charisma, and he has something interesting to say about everything. It was with him that I began talking over the high topics of design, the role of industry in Society.  .  .  .  .  for me he has become a real mentor one of the maestros.”

Why does Sottsass hate being called a maestro…? Because I believe he fears it means that he is not being taken seriously. He is, Alessi certainly does! So if the arguments, the healthy arguments alive here in Milan, what is design..? what is its position…? are we the mediators…? is this our real position for the future…? or are we the philosophers, the one that will lead, that will show the way…?  are we the instruments for simple monetary profit or do we have a more important role that is still profitable, but rather more long term.

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