A decade after his death, the colourful, evocative work of designer Ettore Sottsass is going through somewhat of a renaissance.
Earlier this year in Venice, a show dedicated to the Italian designer’s glass and crystal was curated by Luca Massimo Barbero who gathered 220 designs from 1947 to 2007, many of the pieces never made public before. While just a few piazzas away at Piazza San Marco, a show of early Sottsass ceramics opened at the Carlo Scarpa-designed Negozio Olivetti. Once the headquarters for its typewriters and calculators, it is also the place where Ettore Sottsass first made his name in the 1950s. Ettore lives on.
Sottsass trained as an architect and spent his career designing: buildings, furniture, electronic products, ceramics, lighting, jewellery and textiles. His interest in the arts extended to poetry and writing, and he embraced the work of Allen Ginssberg who he toured through Italy during the late 50s. Ettore liked to surround himself with an eclectic mix of creatives, and as well as Ginsberg, he was friends with Helmut Newton, Max Ernst, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Robert Mapplethorpe and Pablo Picasso. He was prolific and would often work through the night pushing and prodding the industry's new toy, industrialisation. For him, design was more than function. He saw the need for personality in objects. Designs that expressed attitude and feeling and connected with the world through form and a vibrant overlay of colour, texture and pattern. His designs were often adorned with polka-dotts and leopard prints. He believed that design should question the status quo – if you are designing a chair, why not also propose a new way to sit.
This maverick approach built a following that continues today. In 2015 Italian design brand Kartell led a revival of the Memphis design movement. Collaborating with Memphis Group members Nathalie du Pasquier and George Sowden they created a collection of Memphis fabrics to cover some of their favourite chairs – Philippe Starck's Mademoiselle chair, Patricia Urquiola's Foliage and and the Trix lounge by Piero Lissoni.
This year, to mark 100 years since Ettore Sottsass was born, two new exhibitions open – "Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical" at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and "Poet and Rebel: Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Legacy" at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany.
"Poet and Rebel: Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Legacy” at the Vitra Design Museum explores the world of Sottsass through Vitra's own collection of Sottsass pieces. It takes a look at the designer whose impact on objects, and on us, is still going strong.
Curated by Heng Zhi, the following essay was commissioned by the Vitra Design Museum to accompany their show "Poet and Rebel: Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Legacy”.
This year he would have celebrated his 100th birthday: the Austro-Italian designer Ettore Sottsass (1917–2007), one of the most influential and unconventional figures in twentieth-century design. He gained renown with his designs for the office equipment manufacturer Olivetti, for his poetic, minimalist sculptural objects, and as the leading figure of the Memphis design collective in the 1980s. Over the course of his long career, Sottsass moved between disciplines, leaving behind a fascinating oeuvre that is represented by many objects in the collection of the Vitra Design Museum. The Vitra Schaudepot exhibition presents an overview of approximately 30 of his furniture designs, consumer products, photographs and writings. It pays tribute to an extraordinary designer who did not regard form and function as constraints, but rather viewed design as an opportunity to explore the nature of human existence.
Sottsass’s most famous works are his furniture designs for the Memphis group, which created a sensation and ushered in the postmodern aesthetic of the 1980s. The shrill colours, patterns and forms of Memphis objects were inspired by motifs from everyday life, Pop culture and the non-European civilisations encountered by Sottsass during his extensive travels from the 1960s onward. This resulted in iconic objects like the Carlton bookcase (1981), the lamps Ashoka (1981) and Tahiti (1981), and the Tartar table (1985) – expressive objects that sought to communicate with the viewer and liberate themselves from a functionalist design approach.
Yet early signs of the pioneering Memphis aesthetic were already visible in Sottsass’s work from prior decades, beginning in the late 1950s. As Art Director at the furniture manufacturer Poltronova (1958–1974), Sottsass developed a signature style in furniture design by combining vivid colours and distinctive structures. During many decades of work for the office equipment manufacturer Olivetti (starting in 1957), he created legendary objects like the Valentine typewriter (1969), which became a symbol of Pop design. Sottsass continued his closely observed career path in the 1970s by taking on various roles – as a participant in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition »Italy: The New Domestic Landscape« (1972), as a central figure of the design initiative Global Tools (1973-1975), or as a member of the design collective Alchimia (1976-1980). In all of these activities, Sottsass persistently challenged the established tastes of the middle class by confronting it with his poetic, unorthodox objects.
The exhibition is supplemented by excerpts from the extensive body of poetic and literary texts written by Sottsass, as well as photographs from the Metafore series (1972-1979), which clearly reveal Sottsass’s search for meaningful answers to fundamental design issues. They show that his interest in spirituality and archaic cultures was a direct source of creative inspiration for his designs for Alchimia, Memphis, and even Olivetti, a manufacturer of industrial goods. This is what ultimately makes Sottsass stand out in the history of twentieth-century design: as a rebel and a poet, whose legacy continues to enrich our everyday lives.
"Poet and Rebel: Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Legacy" runs until 24 September 2017, and "Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical" is open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 8 October 2017.
Works by designer Ettore Sottsass for Kartell and Glas Italia are exclusively available across South East Asia from Space – Australia – and Space – Asia.