Alessi X Michael Graves Design Whistling Bird Tea Kettle: Behind The Design

We welcome Donald Strum, President of Michael Graves Design, to talk about the Alessi X Michael Graves Design Whistling Bird Tea Kettle.

How did the idea to design a tea kettle come about?

Answer: Michael Graves was 1 of 11 influential architects in the early 80's invited by Alberto Alessi to design a limited-edition sterling silver tea service set to introduce Alessi to the world stage.  They would be displayed at museums and galleries versus stores.  The sets were very expensive and cost many thousands of dollars. Our set began to sell and sell.  Alberto recognized this and thought that Michael had a way of tuning into public taste and therefore commissioned our firm to design the next Alessi teakettle.  

Alessi had already produced another designer’s teakettle but was having issues with it.  He wanted us to learn from his other kettle and improve the following:

  • Boil water faster
  • Make sure the handle is insulated and stays cool to the touch with boiling water
  • Make sure all component parts stay inbound of the kettle body so there is no exposure to an open flame.
  • Make sure the kettle whistles loudly when the water is boiling.
  • Design a kettle for an American audience.
  • We wished to add a dose of whimsy to the kettle, which made it a key ingredient to the formula.


What was your inspiration for the design?

Answer: The overall conical shape and wider base footprint was driven by Alessi 's initial research of what  the best form is to boil water faster.  Based on the water capacity we were able to develop several shapes that coincide with the research. We then naturally softened the overall form, so it was more bell shaped than severe conical shaped.  This made it easier on the eyes.  

Once we had the main hierarchical body shape, we then began studying possible hand grip and ergonomic pouring positions, in relation to spout shape and location.  

The large black ball on the lid was important to quieting the overall look and composition.  It visually anchors the kettle.  The generous handle grip, transitional red spheroids, black rubber bushings, and sturdy arching wire connection perfectly bisecting the top of the stainless-steel body are all emanating outward from the ball like sonar waves. This “celebration of the parts” that makes up the kettle, reinforces the overall success of the design and why it continues to be one of Alessi’s bestselling iconic products for the last 37 years.

Anecdotally, Michael Graves once received a postcard from a French poet, who wrote, “I’m always very grumpy when I get up in the morning. But when I get up now, I put the teakettle on, and when it starts to sing it makes me smile – damn you!”  That really sums up the emotional connection the design makes with those who use it in their lives. 


Was the idea always to have a bird whistle?

Answer: Yes, the idea of the bird perched upon the whistle was part of the design concept from the very beginning.

Michael Graves recalls an Indiana rooster on his cousin’s farm back in the day that sparked an influence when designing the kettle.  The rooster would wake them up every morning, rain or shine, and that leaves an impression of how one starts the day.

If you look at early sketches of the kettle, the bird is not clearly defined, but represented.  It took several rounds by MG artists and model builders to get it right, with me sculpting the final version, which incorporated the users’ fingers to help pull the whistle out of the kettle, in order to pour the boiling water out. 

The bird on the spout lends the kettle further charm and visually behaves as a kind of hood ornament.  If you look closely at the relationship of the bird whistle to the teakettle and compare it to the figure on the hood of a Rolls Royce, they carry the same gesture.  That is not by accident mind you.


What was the decision for the colors?

Answer: Color along with form is representational, conveys meaning, and in this case for the teakettle – logical.  Applying an organization of color for the teakettle happened quite easily. The handle is blue, implying coolness to the touch, and the bird on the spout where the steam emerges is red, indicating heat.  In early versions we wanted to make the rivet-like dots arrayed around the base of the kettle red also, because of their proximity to the flame of the stove, indicating heat, but that move was technically not feasible.


What were other colorways that were considered?

Answer: Many ranges of red and blue colorways were studied initially for the teakettle.  Some reds were deeper and darker, and many blues went to the shadowy gray range.  We felt that a muted color palette would allow the kettle to be used in a wider range of kitchen environments from country, traditional, and modern designs and everything in between.  The color would be its own version of neutral and not polarizing. We were right. 

Over time and many anniversary versions later, the kettle has been depicted in a wider range of colors, breaking all the color metaphors we initially applied.  It keeps the teakettle joyous and relevant in changing times.  Incidentally, we are very excited about a new kettle version coming out shortly, re-imagined by a widely popular, recently-deceased, guest artist, and shows the versatility of what makes our 9093 kettles so timeless and special!


What was your favorite part of the design process?

Answer: To be personally asked by Michael Graves to be a part of assisting the design and development of the Alessi teakettle in the spring of 1984.  I was working part time at the MG Studio finishing up my senior year at Parson School of Design for Industrial Design and was in the deep throes of planning an extensive cross country bike trip with my fellow college mate, Alex Lee. When Michael asked me to work on the kettle, it meant a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a full-time position right out of college.  So, I had to decide-teakettle or bike ride, bike ride or teakettle.  I then heard my mother’s voice inside my head and the decision quickly appeared.  My college mate was pretty upset with me, so to patch things up I got him a full-time model making position at the MG Studio.  That helped.


What part did each of you play in the process?

Answer: Michael was the design maestro and met with Alberto Alessi and his team in Italy to be debriefed on the project objectives.  Michael would make “Design-Perfect” sketches and drawings that were proportionally precise. When I drew a line, it was a line.  When Michael drew a line, it was an expression!

I did anything I could to learn from Michael, be in his presence, and be in service of the kettle design process by further sketching, drawing, drafting, rendering, modeling, sculpting, coloring, and volume calculations.  It was an exciting time to be a young designer at the studio!


Can you tell us the story of the tea kettle unveiling?

Answer: It was the spring of ‘85, the office was booming with buildings, and Alberto Alessi was coming to show Michael the first production prototype of the Tea Kettle. Alberto's visiting was always a big deal, you know.

But it just wasn't Alberto, it was an entourage of sorts. A couple of Alessi brothers, a few Italian engineers, several folks from marketing and even the Distribution Agent for North America.

A black velvet satchel was delicately placed in the center of a large circular table in Michael's Library. Everyone gathered round and Alberto slipped off the satchel. The kettle revealed itself as our faces were lit up by the bright metals reflective glow of gleamy stainless steel goodness. No words, no sounds, and time stood still. Somehow through the unveiling I ended up on my knees with my chin now resting on the table... I was like a raccoon, mesmerized by this shiny object.

I heard the pop of a cork and the Proseco began to pour. Remember Italians. Michael was circling around the room looking at the Teakettle from all different angles and vantage points. There was a wall mirror in the room hung between a set of French doors and I witnessed MG looking at the reflection of the teakettle in the mirror. Whatever was he doing? So I decided to find out. I said, you are Michael Graves, your Humana building is set to open next month, the office is getting new commission after new commission, and now you are here staring at your first industrialized product, the Alessi Whistling Bird Teakettle, what are you thinking at this very moment. MG's response “-------M o t h e r F u d g e r.....” except he didn’t say Fudger.

Michael was always one to swear with flair at the best moments of summation.


What inspired the dragon on the 30th anniversary tea kettle?

Answer: In bird years, thirty is equivalent to Methuselah’s life span!  So when Alberto Alessi asked us to design a new whistle to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of our teakettle, we imagined a new evolution in the history of our kettle.  One where our little bird might transform into a superhero: a reptilian creature that is at once prehistoric, mythological, and futuristic.  We chose the dragon imagery and its jade green color because of the rich cultural heritage found in Chinese folklore that uses the dragon to symbolize power and good luck.  Our Dragon is friendly, and he decidedly does not breathe fire, but perhaps lets off a little steam!  He has a smile on his face, an easy-to-hear whistle and a wingspan that makes it easy to remove him from our teakettle when the water boils. We hope our dragon will proudly protect our kettle and your kitchen for years to come.  It also didn’t hurt that the Game of Thrones was wildly popular at the time and had several captivating dragons included in the show's epic story line.



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