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Ettore Sottsass: Break­ing the Rules

Ultrafragola mirror light
The Ultra­fragola Mirror Light, by Ettore Sottsass 

It might be an under­state­ment to call Ettore Sottsass a vision­ary. Every vision­ary must break the rules first, and he was very good at doing that. His pursuit of creat­ing some­thing visu­ally stim­u­lat­ing through design is the legacy he left behind. Ettore Sottsass was born in Inns­bruck in 1917. In 1939 he grad­u­ated in archi­tec­ture at the Politec­nico di Torino. Honored with numer­ous inter­na­tional awards, was the winner of the Golden Compass in 1959.

Ettore Sottsass devoted his life and work to disman­tling the past in his various roles as artist, archi­tect, indus­trial designer, glass maker, publisher, theo­reti­cian and ceram­i­cist. The past to him was the ratio­nal­ist doctrine of his father, Ettore Sottsass Sr., a promi­nent Italian archi­tect. Fond though he was of his parents, Ettore Jr. favored a differ­ent approach. When I was young, all we ever heard about was func­tion­al­ism, func­tion­al­ism, func­tion­al­ism,” he once said. “[Func­tion­al­ism] It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.”

In 1956, Sottsass trav­eled to New York as he was commis­sioned to create a line of ceram­ics during this visit, but was also inspired to concen­trate on indus­trial design, rather than archi­tec­ture, after spend­ing a month working in the studio of the US designer, George Nelson.

You have to think of Memphis as sort of a punk move­ment against modernism

– Leo Koenig, of Koenig & Clinton Gallery

By the late 1970s, Sottsass was working with Studio Alchymia, a group of avant-garde furni­ture design­ers includ­ing Alessan­dro Mendini and Andrea Branzi, on an exhi­bi­tion at the 1978 Milan Furni­ture Fair. Two years later, Sottsass, then in his 60s, split with Mendini to form a new collec­tive, Memphis, with Branzi and other collab­o­ra­tors who were in their 20’s, includ­ing Peter Shire, Michele De Lucchi, George Sowden, Matteo Thun and Nathalie du Pastier. Sottsass was consid­ered the key source of inspi­ra­tion and the binding force within Memphis. Ettore Sottsass sent shock­waves through the design world when he unveiled the first collec­tion from the Memphis Group. Explod­ing with a riot of off-kilter forms, bright colors, and outra­geous patterns, the group’s cabi­nets, book­cases, tables, and lamps (which used plenty of plastic lami­nate) and broke all the rules of subdued modern design.

Ettore Sottsass, Impor­tant Works, on view at Phillips c.2018

Memphis embod­ied the themes with which Sottsass had been exper­i­ment­ing with his mid-1960s super­boxes’: bright colors, kitsch subur­ban motifs and cheap mate­ri­als like plastic lami­nates. This time, however, these themat­ics captured the atten­tion of the mass media as well as the design cognoscenti, and Memphis (named after a Bob Dylan song) was billed as the future of design. For the young design­ers of the era, Memphis was an intel­lec­tual express lane, which liber­ated them from the dry ratio­nal­ism they had been taught at the college and enabled them to adopt a more fluid, concep­tual approach to design. Despite the fact that Memphis collective’s work was exhib­ited all over the world, Sottsass quit in early 1985.

Ettore Sottsass Shelf System

Revered inter­na­tion­ally as a key figure of late 20th-century design, Ettore Sottsass is cited as a role model by young foreign design­ers, such as Ronan and Erwan Bouroul­lec, for the breadth as well as the quality of his work. As further testi­mony to his impact, in 1999 Sottsass received the Sir Misha Black medal for his outstand­ing contri­bu­tion to the field of design. In the 2000s his work was the focus of some exhi­bi­tions and retro­spec­tives. For example: the 2006 exhi­bi­tion Ettore Sottsass’ orga­nized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which was the first major retro­spec­tive of Sottsass’ work in the USA, and the Ettore Sottsass – Work in Progress’ exhi­bi­tion displayed at the Design Museum in 2007.

If you haven’t seen this one, it’s a must. He designed the first portable type­writer ( soon to become a laptop) called the Valen­tine” by Olivetti, which is parked at Moma.

He died in 2007 at the age of 90 years on the last day of 2007. He leaves behind a rich body of work that only paved the way for others.