From the February/March 2017 Issue  

Whistle While You Work

Writer Ren Miller
  • Standard Whistling Bird Kettle design. Courtesy of Alessi

  • The 30th anniversary Tex Rex Whistling Kettle. Courtesy of Alessi

Design NJ launches a new iconic design feature with the Whistling Bird Kettle designed by Michael Graves.

From its sleek sloping sides to the novel bird perched on the tip of its spout, the 9093 taught us that making tea can be fun when it was introduced in 1985.

Better known as the Whistling Bird Kettle, it quickly became an icon of 20th century design thanks to its innovative design by renowned Princeton architect and product designer Michael Graves and Alessi, the Italian company known for translating creative designs into products geared toward the mainstream. The teakettle costs anywhere from $130 to $190 and has been Alessi’s number-one seller for 30 years.

The relationship between Alessi and Graves began in 1980, when the company invited him and some others to participate in a promotional project known as “Coffee and Tea Piazza.” Of all the entries, Graves’ design sold best so he was then asked to design a teakettle. When the 9093 kettle debuted, its whistling bird represented a meeting of great design and mass production. Graves had worked tirelessly to achieve this combination, incorporating influences from Art Deco, Pop Art and even cartoons to come up with a kettle with a wide bottom (more contact with the cooktop means faster heating), narrow top (which efficiently channels steam toward the spout) and the charismatic bird (which releases the steam as a whistle).

The teakettle brought a sense of playfulness to European design and launched a prolific collaboration between Graves and Alessi that lasted until his death in 2015 (for a story on Graves’ Princeton home, see the August/September 2015 issue of Design NJ).

According to Michael Graves Architecture & Design (, the Harvard Business Review once described the Whistling Bird Kettle as a product that was “designed to bring users joy … [that] showed its greatest originality in broadening people’s expectation of what a kettle was and did and, indeed, the nature of the breakfast experience.”

Put another way — using saltier language — a French poet once sent Graves a postcard saying: “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!”

In honor of the Whistling Bird Kettle’s 30th anniversary, Graves designed a Tea Rex version that transforms the bird into a super-hero: a reptilian creature that is at once prehistoric, mythological and futuristic, a friendly dragon who “decidedly does not breathe fire, but perhaps lets off a little steam,” Graves said shortly before his death.