Who better than the granddaughter of not one, but two icon designers, literally brought up on bread and design, to explain what an icon is, what defines it, what distinguishes it from a “trendy” product or an archetype and why icons are no longer being produced.
In Le caffettiere dei miei bisnonni. La fine delle icone nel design italiano [The coffee makers of my great-grandparents. The end of the road for new Italian design icons], Chiara Alessi is bright, perceptive, sometimes ironic, but never pessimistic as she explains why the age of Italian design icons has ground to a halt. Many myths are debunked. The designers are not to blame, their creativity said to have waned, nor are the manufacturers, said to have forgotten how to produce, market and communicate, nor indeed is the general public, who would fail to recognise them for what they are. Nor it is due to the lack of a sufficient time lapse.
This state of affairs is the upshot of a different way of using time these days. The present is subject to “continual updating”, in which everything is replaced by a new version of itself that renders it immediately obsolete and destined to be instantly forgotten. Thus, objects that are trapped in their own actuality “are merely selfies of the present”, accessories “that do not necessarily need to work or last but are capable of triggering instant, powerful emotions”. Nowadays, our objects are chosen exclusively as emotive, personal “pretexts to say something about ourselves, often just to ourselves. Their aim is not to reconfigure a convincing, lasting, and collective [design] landscape”, as historic icons did and continue to do.
However, this is not necessarily a defect. If the design of tomorrow were to produce a more ethical, innovative and generous present – albeit not a universal one - the author’s great-grandfathers, Alfonso Bialetti, inventor of the most famous coffee-maker in the world, and Giovanni Alessi, of the household product manufacturer that bears his name, would certainly not turn up their noses.