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Ettore Sottsass was an Italian architect and designer active during the second half of the twentieth century. Sottsass is known primarily in association with Memphis, the radical design group he founded in the eighties. However, his lengthy and fruitful career brought forth much more than his brief stint with Memphis, though it remains a defining segment. So, who was Ettore Sottsass, the designer lauded “one of the design geniuses of the 20th century” by Karl Lagerfeld and whose designs were collected by the likes of David Bowie?
Sottsass was born in Innsbruck, Austria in 1917. Several years later, the family moved to Turin, where Ettore grew up. His father, also named Ettore, was an architect. A Modernist, he belonged to the rationalist movement which was gaining momentum in Italy during the twenties and thirties. Following in his father’s footsteps, the younger Sottsass studied to become an architect. He attended the Politecnico di Torino where he graduated in 1939. During World War II, he served in the Italian military before being imprisoned in a labor camp in Sarajevo. When the war was over, he returned home, briefly working with his father before moving to Milan. He set up his own architectural and industrial design studio, where he experimented with different mediums such as painting, interior and furniture design, sculpture and jewelry.
A pivotal moment in the early years of Sottsass’ career was a trip to New York in 1956. He was riveted by the effect of the industrial on everyday life and culture. It was a time of economic prosperity which gave rise to consumerism and added the ‘pop’ in culture. Spending a brief period of time in the office of designer George Nelson, Ettore Sottsass witnessed the merging of artistic expression with technology in a way that was unseen in Europe at the time. This experience left a strong impression on Sottsass. He subsequently turned away from Modernism towards a fresh, exciting new direction inspired by the consumerist boom. Eager to apply this experience to his work in Italy, he joined furniture manufacturer Poltronova as an artistic consultant.
Sottsass’ oeuvre can be dissected into his ‘pre-Memphis’, ‘Memphis’ and ‘post-Memphis’ phase. The keyword being Memphis as the most radical stage of his career and the one for which he remains most well-known as a designer. Sottsass’ work for Poltronova represents a prelude to Memphis. Slowly but surely he was steering away from functionalism toward a new style influenced by pop art and abstract expressionism.
Some of the most definitive objects of this newfound expression were the Superbox series designed for Poltronova. While Sottsass’ Superbox cabinets never got past the prototype stage, they mark a significant period in his oeuvre. Ettore Sottsass took the idea of a closet and transformed it into an object transcending its materiality. Inspired by Pop Art, Minimalism and spirituality, the Superbox becomes a totem placed in the center of a room. Brightly-colored laminate covers all four sides of the cabinet, transforming an austere box into a central object of fascination.
The Superbox presents a simple, yet profound way for an object to transcend mere function and embody the essence of Sottsass’ design process. It also expresses the philosophical undertones present in all of his work, regarding the relation between man, object and social and cultural themes. ‘We Were Exuberant and Still Had Hope’ is the title of an exhibition of Sottsass’ work from 1969 with the Superbox in the center of focus. The title also reflects the mantra of the avant-garde, with Sottsass as a paragon.
In 1958, Ettore Sottsass was offered a position as a design consultant for Olivetti. It was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration for both the designer and the company. The following year, he designed the first Italian mainframe computer for electronics manufacturer, subsequently earning the first of his four Compasso d’Oro awards. Still in his pre-Memphis phase, Sottsass merged function with pop culture, adding color and personality to otherwise mundane objects. It was the sensibility with which he designed Olivetti’s products for over two decades.
Described by the New York Times as ‘the man who could find passion in a typewriter’, this sums up his subjective and humanist approach. Launched on Valentine’s day in 1969, the Valentine typewriter packed a punch with its bright red plastic casing, all in the name of passion. The Valentine was “for use in any place except in an office, so as not to remind anyone of the monotonous working hours, but rather to keep amateur poets company on quiet Sundays in the country or to provide a highly colored object on a table in a studio apartment.”
Despite being designed and targeted towards a more creative, personal user experience – something we today take for granted in a world centered around the portable and the individual – the Valentine was not a commercial success. Yet, the typewriter remains significant in that it set the scene for the brightly colored iMacs of the nineties and brought attention to the user in a fun and touching way. It brought Ettore Sottsass his second Compasso d’Oro. At the same time, it gave the world a valuable insight into what technology could be, and ultimately, what it has become.
In 1980, Sottsass founded his design collective, Memphis, named after the Bob Dylan song ‘Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again’. It dominated the Italian design scene with its brightly colored plastics and rebellious nature. Jasper Morrison, upon seeing the debut exhibition of the group, “you were in one sense repulsed by the objects, or I was, but also immediately freed by the sort of total rule-breaking.” This act of liberation was reflected in breaking away from modernist doctrine and embodying a sort of ‘anything goes’ mindset in terms of design.
However, in order to fully understand its message, one has to return to Florence of 1966, the birthplace of radical Italian design collectives such as Superstudio, Archizoom and UFO. These were in favor of a new avant-garde, which used extreme and kitsch expressions as a tool for social critique. They took ideas such as production, consumerism and urbanization, and, intensifying these ideas to the point of ridicule posed a simple question: is this what you [the people] really want?. The new Italian landscape radically questioned the values of a culture of over-consumption with thought-provoking designs which were never really meant to be consumed. It was an era of ‘counter-design’ which characterized the Italian post-modern scene. Memphis joined the movement a little over a decade after its conception, but with no shortage of the outrageous and tasteless qualities it purposefully embodied.
For Sottsass, this marked a period of transition in his career. He still referenced elements of pop culture, but now it was to critique instead of celebrate it. The Carlton bookcase is perhaps the most recognizable object in connection to Memphis and a direct realization of the group’s anti-functionalist maxim. Of functionalism, Sottsass expressed that “It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting” . And so, the Carlton is a bookcase, room divider and dresser all at once. Stack upon stack of brightly laminated MDF at varying angles, it was a statement piece, a totem of sorts. It was everything but a practical piece of furniture. Other notable pieces were the Tahiti and Ashoka lamp, bearing resemblance to the Carlton.
Memphis was bold but short-lived. A superlative expression of excess, it was high on energy and quick to burn out. Ettore Sottsass left the collective in 1985 to focus on his architecture studio Sottsass Associati, which he founded at around the same time as Memphis. The group disbanded three years later. Memphis had served its purpose, made its statement and moved on. He worked with Esprit on the design of several stores, as well as working with brands like Apple and Siemens. On top of private commissions, Sottsass worked on numerous public buildings, most notably the Milan Malpensa Airport and the pavilion of the Museo dell’Arredo Contemporaneo in Ravenna.
Sottsass’ never-ending thirst for designing had him working until his death in 2007. His six decades long career injected a much needed dose of character and unpredictability in the rational, modernist spirit of post-war Italy. Sottsass created so much, from buildings to furniture and lighting, even ceramics and glassware. It was the ideas portrayed by his entire life’s work which mattered more than specific pieces themselves and which ultimately rendered him a seminal figure in design.
His ambivalent relationship with the cultural climate was a relentless source of inspiration throughout his lifetime. Sottsass’ work was described by Deyan Sudjic as a “life-long exploration of the tension between the ostensible commercial purpose of an industrial object, and its ability to be shaped in such a way as to call into question the values and the culture of the society that brought it into being.” And there is no better way to put it.
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