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We can no longer produce Italian design icons. A book by Chiara Alessi explains why

“The coffeemakers of my great-grandparents”, Chiara Alessi’s new book, explains why no new Italian design icons are ever produced. But it is also a (non-moralistic) portrait of the present, a time that is incapable of creating a historical sense. As such, it makes us think, well beyond the boundaries of design.

Truly contemporary Italian design icons do not exist. This is the synthesis of “The coffeemakers of my great-grandparents”, Chiara Alessi’s latest book(Utet, 2018). And this is also the main reason why the contemporary section of the Triennale Design Museum (curated by Alessi) is not an exhibition of objects but a store. Where the focus is not on objects but how how they come to being, and how they are sold.


Just like the contemporary section of the Triennale Design Museum, also “The coffeemakers of my great-grandparents” is a necessary tool for understanding today. The book, in fact, is fascinating in its capacity to bring the reader well beyond the boundaries of design. And to make us think of the meaning of life and relationships. Because the reason why Italian design icons are no longer created has nothing to do with the quality of design. But with the impossibility – for objects but also for human beings – to build a relationship with history.

Alfonso Bialetti – Chiara Alessi’s great-grandfather – with the moka he designed in 1933

A moka is forever

“The coffeemakers of my great-grandparents” starts with the story of former prime minister Matteo Renzi giving Apple CEO Tim Cook a Bialetti moka. That is a dated object, designed in 1933 by Chiara Alessi’s great-grandfather, Alfonso Bialetti. An object that, strictly speaking, is not even an original. Its shape, materials, ergonomic details and logo have changed quite dramatically throughout the decades. And, ironically, the moka is not even produced in Italy any more. Yet Italians cannot find anything as iconic in terms of symbolism, universality and emotional attachment. How is it possible?

Hunting for culprits

One could think that “things are not made as well as they used to be”. I am sure that many would happily jump on this wagon. Do not we hear this very irritating sentence at least once a day? Applied to everything: from books to music to fashion. That’s would be one way of justifying the lack of contemporary Italian design icons. The other one would be to hypothesize that time distance is required for an icon to emerge. And that we have not yet grasped the essence of the world after 2000, but when we will, we will also find its icons.

Sacco, by Gatti, Paolini, Teodoro for Zanotta, 1968

Designers and historical distance have nothing to do with it

But, according to Chiara Alessi, neither of these reasons are correct. The fact that we no longer produce Italian design icons is not the fault of designers, companies or the public. Neither of the lack of sufficient time distance. As a matter of fact, the Sacco by Zanotta or the Juicy Salif designed by Philippe Starck have been recognized immediately and universally as icons. The problem lies, instead, on our relationship with time and history. And it is in this passage that “The coffeemakers of my great-grandparents” brings the mind beyond design.

In constant update

Chiara Alessi talks about contemporary times as being “in constant update mode”, like software. As a moment in which everything is replaced by the new version of itself. Or replaced tout court by something that makes it immediately obsolete. It is also a world in which we have been taught that what we wear, eat, read and use talks about us. Because we, as individuals, are center stage, with objects as personal branding accessories. Today is a market in which everything is communicated and “consumed” at very high speed. Sometimes (just think of prototypes taken to trade shows or renderings on blogs) even before actually existing. The omnipresence of images on and offline accelerates the journey towards the oblivion.

The 9090 coffeemaker by Richard Sapper for Alessi (1979) and the Bialetti moka

The new nature of desire …

In this “continuous present”, everything is apparently accessible to most people: news, products, travel, memories on social networks, even relationships (think of Tinder). How can we deny the impact that this “ease of access” has on the quality of our desire?
«It’s not that people are no longer interested in things», explains Chiara Alessi. «The present without a future is a time of perennial desires and satisfactions of desires. But it lacks the necessary metabolism to transform them into a more complex and mature feeling».

Function and duration against emotion and immediacy

Which is the reason why today all that gives istantaneous and strong emotions is more successful that what has an obvious function and is built to last. It is a precariousness that has changed our relationship with objects: which increases interest in the act of desiring rather than possession. Like the love addict who loves love rather than the partner.

… and its consequences

So the act of desiring becomes more desirable than the object of desire. Chiara Alessi quotes the queues in front of the Apple Stores. And the idea of clever Tokyo bookseller who sells one book per week. But, as those who have teenage kids know very well, the “sale of desire” is definitely booming through street style fashion aimed at the youngest. Who, as the “drop” day approaches, do not hesitate to form kilometers of queues. In front of stores of the likes of Supreme or Stüssy, but also from Adidas, Nike, The North Face, in shops like Palace, Sneakernstuff…


What happens then is emblematic. Because the kids who manage to get in to grab the agonized T-shirt then put it on sale online almost immediately, at a much higher price. They’re venial, kids. And smart. But above all, they do not really care as much about owning the garment than about the thrill of arriving in time to buy one. Is the T-shirt an icon, then? Or the desire to desire it?

Light switch, Achille Castiglioni, VLM, 1968

From design to the meaning of life

The humanity that emerges from Chiara Alessi’s book is a lonely one, desperately seeking a connection with others and with history. But uncapable of finding it. «We queue up to feel we want something», writes Alessi. «We queue up to feel part of a community that voluntarily puts itself into a waiting position». And again: «The relationship between people and things is often personalized through exclusively emotional, sculptural objects. Which unlike the historical Italian design icons are selected on the basis of a personal story. They are souvenirs of other lives that we would like, or objects that become excuses to say something about us, often only to us. Without the ambition to reconfigure a convincing and lasting, collective landscape ». As design icons did.

Without a present

Considering our individualistic lives, and the search for a belonging that will end in instantaneous relationships, is key to understand the book’s thesis. Which is: the present cannot produce icons because it is not able to produce a univocal, true and shared meaning. While icons are the consequence of a time that had figured out itself. Whether they support its views or oppose them, does not matter. It follows that the inability to create icons represents the victory of the ephemeral, of the extemporaneous, of haste without depth.

From who and what to how

These are findings that I personally find depressing, because they are very true. But Chiara Alessi launches an optimistic point of view in the book, at least in terms of design. «It would be wrong to consider the disappearance of Italian design icons as a failure. For a very long time, design has been interested in the “who” and the “what”. At the turn of the 2000s, its attention started to turn to “how”. The 2010s could well thus be the era of the “whys”».
The curatorship of the Triennale Design Museum illustrates in an excellent way how “how” produces more innovation of “what” today. That is to say, how design innovation is now more nourished in terms of creative, productive and sales processes than of research related to forms.

Juicy Salif, by Philippe Starck for Alessi, 1990

From how to why

But the passage from “how” to “why” is not explained in the book. My interpretation is that it is a wish that contemporary time would find the strength to question itself, with patience, focusing on the motivations that move it. It would be a fundamental step to create a different present. A designed rather than endured existence. Guided by human interest rather than markets. And it is happening. I am thinking, for example, of cities like Barcelona that design alternative urban digital scenarios (we talked about this here). It is in this kind of projects that design finds its role as a creator of new meanings. It is this, as “The coffeemarker of my great-grandparents” explains, the essence and the raison d’être of Italian design icons. That perhaps, in contemporary times, may stop being empty desires just as they stopped being object. And take the form of motivations.

All illustrations are by Yoshiko Kubota and are taken from the book Le Caffettiere dei miei Bisnonni, by Chiara Alessi, Utet, 2018.

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