For all the tea in china
ALESSI and Hong Kong designer and brand consultant Alan Chan Yau-kin are on what Chan calls a honeymoon. 'We're still holding hands,' he jokes. Having conquered the world of coffee, Alessi is turning its gaze to tea, and while it's at it, China - a developing market for the Italian design giant.
'My grandfather invented the home espresso machine,' explains Alessio Alessi, the firm's managing director. 'And the first object my father worked on was a coffee set, so we've always been very involved in coffee. Now we're interested in the world of tea, which is why we wanted to work with Alan; to have some part of the Chinese culture, to go worldwide.'
Their first collaboration, dubbed 'Tea Matter' (after 'products of a Tea Master'), is a set consisting of a bird cage, a charming melodic bird-shaped tea strainer and caddies in stainless steel, and is about to embark on a worldwide tour. Alessi says that the Chinese tea culture is very different to that of Europe and Britain, and hopes that Chan - known for his merging of east and west, classic and contemporary elements in his designs - and his little bird, will provide a much-needed link between the two cultures.
Chan, after professing a love of spaghetti and all things Italian, argues that they have more in common than it seems. 'We are both very family oriented cultures, you can see this in the Godfather movies; the family always comes together in the end, to help each other out. That's very Chinese to me.'
One thing these two don't seem to have in common is their design approach. Despite tough economic times and the need to cater to a diverse global market, Alessi insists that his family continues to believe firmly in intuitive design. 'We put a lot of things inside people's houses, so we have a responsibility to create products which they can relate to - not anonymous, boring ones, but ones with feeling,' he says. 'Our policy isn't to follow what people ask. Instead, we propose things that come from the minds of some of the world's most important creative people. It's a risk, because it doesn't always work; we work on the line between the possible and the impossible.'
Chan, on the other hand, favours a more pragmatic approach. 'My background comes from the advertising industry back in the '70s, so my design solutions are very much an interpretation of marketing analysis,' he says. 'I study the market from a brand strategy point of view and turn it into a design question. Then I deliver the answers.'
While Alessi admits that the design gene runs thick in his family's blood (his son is a fourth-generation designer) Chan puts a lot down to experience. 'This doesn't come naturally to me! I've been in the business for 40 years: put me on stage now, and I can sing whatever you like - jazz, rock n' roll or hip hop... I'm like an actor who can work with different directors under all sorts of different conditions.'
Inspiration for the Tea Matter project stems from Chan's fond reminiscences of his father, who used to have a fruit shop in Wan Chai in the '50s. 'I was about five or six then. My father used to wake up at 5.30am to go to the market and buy fruit. Afterwards we'd go to the Chinese tea house, where people would bring their birds in cages to sing. It was a very touching and amazing scene for me: a lot of noise over dim sum baskets and the birds singing everywhere.'
It's no surprise that Chan has such warm feelings about tea culture. His first tea shop was in Central where he sold his now famous Alan Chan Creations line, founded in the '90s and featuring nostalgic-kitsch 1930s Shanghai-inspired products - from T-shirts and stationery to watches and Chinese tea. Today he has his own tea brand, has worked on numerous tea-related projects, and has two teahouses in Japan. 'And now we are working on a tea project that will open early next year in Shanghai; a 1930s old building that we'll turn into a tea club, with a tea museum, a shop and a private club.'
Meanwhile, the Alessi company sees this collaboration as the first of many important steps to open up the Greater China market. It plans to work very closely with a group of Chinese designers next year under the concept of 'designed in China, made in Italy'.
So is this the beginning of a long and meaningful relationship? Chan, for one, is optimistic. 'Tea Matter is a new brand which, if all goes well, I envisage developing in the future,' he smiles. 'So though I say we're just honeymooners, I'm hoping that our honeymoon will last as long as possible.'