By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Nov 19, 2010 at 9:53 AM

Sitting in a building like the Santiago Calatrava-designed wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum with an international giant of design like Alberto Alessi, whose eponymous family company has -- for nearly a century -- been one of Europe's most influential and popular design firms, I couldn't help but look around and ask, "had you heard of this building before you arrived in Milwaukee?"

"Yes, of course," replied Alessi, who was in Milwaukee yesterday to give a lecture at the museum as part of the four-day "Art of the Table" program which runs through Sunday and itself is staged in conjunction with the big new show, "European Design Since 1985: Shaping the New Century," which runs through Jan. 9.

"My first personal reaction was liking the combination of the two buildings: the Saarinen and this one," he added. "It was a great move."

Alessi didn't view the structure from a vantage point west of sculptor Mark DiSuvero's "The Calling," which Calatrava was careful to compliment with his architecture, nor had he heard of the local controversy surrounding its location. But he did sound intrigued.

"To promote discussion like this is good for design and architecture; (it's) only good," he said in a brief interview in the Calatrava Cafe on the museum's lower level, framed by a view of a serene, gray lake.

Alessi had just returned from a visit to the European design show upstairs -- between a full slate of interviews -- and although he had previously seen the work elsewhere, the effect of such an array of important works in Milwaukee was important, he said.

"A show like this could increase the sensibility of design," he said, "even from the media. But we need more and more in order to establish the right sensibility -- from my side -- the sensibility of design the European way."

To get an idea of that sensibility, consider that Alessi heads a company founded at the tiny Lake Orta in northwestern Italy by his grandfather Giovanni in 1921. The company, says Alessi, is deeply rooted in the artisan traditions of the area.

"We are just part of the tradition of metal and woodworking coming from the Valle Strona to Lake Orta, which is a 300-year-old tradition and both my grandparents came from this tradition. We still produce the same kind of typologies; I mean the trays, flowers vases and baskets -- the kinds of things that my grandfather was producing.

"Of course the techniques have changed and the materials have changed. When he started it was copper, brass, nickel silver and now it is mainly stainless steel."

Alessi's father and uncle entered and later took over the business and Alessi himself took control during the 1980s.

When I asked him if, in running the company, he often felt his grandfather's hand on his shoulder, he smiled and replied, "probably. Unconsciously."

Over the past 90 years, Alessi has become a powerhouse at home and across Europe, but the company is working hard to expand its reach.

"We try to communicate the history of the company but of course it is more difficult to get the attention of the people (outside Europe)," Alessi told me. "In general, we are less known apart from Italy, and apart from Europe. In Italy, our penetration is high, in Europe it is high, outside Europe it is much less.

"It is very low (in the U.S.). We have a sister company that we founded in order to try to improve the knowledge of Alessi (here). It is coming but very slowly. But it has to do with the appreciation of good design, which is not popular in the United States."

So, how can this be rectified?

"Apart of the excellent work that museums like this are doing, of course, it is important to cultivate in the design sensibility in young people."

Alessi has a number of retails shops in the United States, including one on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and Alessi said that the shops are also helping to get the word out here.

The key to a good designer, Alessi said, has never changed.

"(It is) he same as always: the talent to feel and express the smell of your times."

Alberto Alessi ought to know. His company has worked with many of the biggest names in international design, including Ettore Sottsass, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Michael Graves and Philippe Starck, to name just a few.

And in those collaborations lie the key to Alessi's success. They are also what makes Alessi beam with pride.

"To be able to work with so many different designers (makes me proud)," he said. "The diversity of the people working with Alessi and this makes the richness of our catalog. Also, the differentiation from other colleagues that are doing good design."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.