Cringe List, Part 1: Alessi

Marilyn Corkscrew by Alessi

I always meant to initiate a regular feature about bad design but for a long time I didn’t have the heart for it. For one thing, finding insincere design is like shooting fish in a barrel. For another it’s not very nice. And finally I could never match the comprehensive inventories of horror to be found at Ugly House Photos or Eurobad ’74. Or if those don’t satisfy a need to see disaster, there’s also an endless supply of repulsive objects on Flickr and on the craft end of things, try Regretsy.

In the end, though, I still wanted to figure out why some objects launch me into a fit of annoyance. I’m starting with Alessi just because it sets me off more than most design companies. It’s not that all Alessi designs are bad; it’s just that so many of them are. The corkscrew above, a creepily cartoonified Marilyn based on that famous scene in which her dress is wafted up over a steam grate, actually makes me want to stab myself in the eye with a fork. For me, Alessi ruins everything it touches, like Midas, but instead of turning things to gold it turns them into cloying trash. What is it about Alessi that’s so infuriating? Why am I tired of it the moment I see it?

To compare, here’s the beautiful standard wing corkscrew. I’m free to see a human figure in it—or not. Its open-endedness and subtlety are part of its beauty and lasting interest. Its bodily associations haven’t been drawn in and completed for me by the designer in the overbearingly obvious, creepy, and cutesy manner of the object above. They are there for me to find on my own. For this reason I’ll never tire of it.

wing corkscrew

This is why I find Alessi’s toys for adults so infuriating. It’s not just the cutesy element, or the toys-for-adult-babies thing, both of which are cringe-worthy in their own right. It’s not just the goopy plastickiness. It’s the incessant, overstated anthropomorphism. And it isn’t just that Alessi does mimicry of the human form. It explicitly does a deadened human form. It’s almost as if Alessi wants to admit to the inhuman emptiness of its own designs. These objects often have a face, but a it’s specifically blank kind of face; it’s a body-snatched face. Even a seemingly minimalist electric toothbrush turns out to be a cyclops with a flat stare. If some find this charming, I suppose it’s in the same way they find zombies entertaining or dolls that come to life strictly in order to mess with you.

Is this a return of the repressed? Let’s mask the assembly line horrors of sweat shop manufacturing, but then in the end reveal it it, too? Or is that going too far? It might be, but then why is the first thing I think of when I see Alessi?

I once read an interesting analysis of the Alessi aesthetic, and I wish I could find the article again because it explained this so well. The premise was that paradoxically many of these Alessi objects have a deathly quality in spite of—or more likely because of—their supposedly life-affirming, childlike “playfulness.” They gather this feeling of horror about them because they do our playing and living for us—or attempt to—and that this makes us less alive by comparison. Almost as proof of this thesis, a surprising number of these objects go so far as to explicitly reference a kind of cartoon death—blank or dead eyes, etc. I was once given an Alessi bathtub drain plug consisting of a fat, yellow plastic doll with Xs for eyes. The character has clearly just committed cartoon suicide and is suspended by a ball chain attached noose-like around his neck. I put it out in the back alley. These things don’t animate anything, because they leave nothing to the imagination. Instead of us hamming it up with objects; objects ham it up for us.

It would be nice to be left to figure out for myself all the ways in which our everyday objects resemble us, which they invariably do. But the magic of the endlessly interesting anthropomorphism of our everyday tools, which we used to enjoy, is extinguished in these things. Alessi is the overworked, the filled-in blanks, the cheaply plastic, the zombie smile—it’s a mirror in which you can see the way commodification and reification make you feel.

Anyway, even if you don’t buy this theory, there are other problems. There’s the whole side issue  of women being made to look like sexy ninnies or little girls or, more popularly, both at once. And then there’s the trick of making people pay exorbitant prices for what is actually cheap kitsch, and that’s a creepy game in itself. And the arch cutesiness! It’s like one of those needy, attention-seeking friend at a party, endlessly talking until you until you flee to refill your drink.

In short, please get this Marilyn kitsch out of my sight. [Stomps foot.]

And oh, then there’s this whole other ball game, but it least it doesn’t involve Alessi’s signature zombie stare.

dirty corkscrew

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2 Responses to “Cringe List, Part 1: Alessi”

  1. John Hopper Says:

    It’s good to see that after all these years of constantly being told that British interior design has always been laughably awful (thanks for all those ads Ikea), Europe was just as much in love with velour as the rest of us.

    As to Alessi, sometimes you can believe that you are smarter than you really are. These ads come across as being produced by either snickering adolescents at best, misogynists at their worst.

  2. Christopher Says:

    I think what is so annoying about Alessi is just simply that it parades itself as high-end timeless design, delicately sitting on glass shelves in over-priced kitchen and design shops throughout the wealthier parts of Vancouver. It’s like Paris Hilton acting as though she’s sophisticated, well-bred and refined. Alessi’s “cute” quality seems to be mocking any on-lookers, bullying them into buying it under the ruse that a) if it’s expensive, it’s quality, and b) if it can mock and make fun, it must be superior. There’s nothing more annoying than something trashy with money behaving both childish and superior.

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