A conversation on post-modernism can only go so long before mentioning the work of Italian designer Ettore Sottsass. As a painter, sculptor, photographer and architect, Sottsass continues to influence many of the aesthetic values of the last half of the 20th-century and beyond. From his iconic typewriters for Olivetti to his far-out creations for the Memphis Group, his body of work is, by far, one of the most significant of the post-modern period.
Born in 1917 in Innsbruck, Austria, Ettore Sottsass spent his childhood in Milan where his father, Ettore Sottsass Sr., worked as an architect. As a child, Sottsass Jr. spent much of his time drawing and building ambitious inventions. As he describes one project, “Aged eight or nine, I made barometers and wooden telescopes in my uncle Max the carpenter’s workshop to measure the passing of the stars, but naturally neither the barometer nor the telescope ever worked despite the drawings I did… It has always seemed to me the most natural thing in the world to draw and make things.” [Editor’s note: the entire passage is worth reading as a powerful and intuitive essay on the (oft times) disconnect between maker and consumer.]
Sottsass’s creations developed further as he attended the Turin Polytechnic for architecture, graduating in 1939. His paintings during that time were largely inspired by early 20th-century modern French painters, such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. He began to experiment with bright colors and bold patterns, which soon became a signature and appear in some form or another across his body of work.
Following graduation, Sottsass served in the Italian military during World War II, returning home in 1945. For the next decade, he collaborated with his father – a major influence throughout his life – on several architectural projects. He also served as a curator for major shows, including the first exhibition on abstract art in Milan with the help of fellow designer Bruno Munari, as well as the crafts section of the 1947 Triennale di Milano.
In 1948, Sottsass opened his own architectural practice, The Studio in Milan. It wasn’t until 1957, however, that his career gained serious momentum when he began designing and consulting for Olivetti, an Italian office goods company. Hired by owner Adriano Olivetti, Sottsass worked alongside Adriano’s son, Roberto, designing sleek calculators, office chairs and computers, as well as one of his most iconic pieces: the Valentine typewriter. Blood red and compact, the Valentine mimicked a book when placed in its carrying case, allowing the device to be easily placed away rather than kept out on a desk. In fact, Sottsass’s intention was for the typewriter to be used everywhere but the office, which is why he made it such a daring color – “so as not to remind anyone of 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.” (The pop packaging, portability and playful marketing are an uncanny precursor to Apple’s iMac.) Indeed, as design historian Ronald T. Labaco explains in his essay “Humanist for the Modern Age,” “The most important element of Sottsass’s approach to design is the physical and psychological experience of the prospective user – his or her feelings, reactions, and relationships to the objects of modern culture.”
Similarly, while designing the Olivetti mainframe computer Elea 9003, Sottsass always kept the people who would be using the machines in mind. He wanted to make their experience easier and simpler – back when mainframe computers took up entire rooms, from the 1950s to the early ’80s. Sottsass lowered the computer cabinets so the operators could see each other over the gargantuan machine. He made the units adjustable to create a multitude of configurations and used bright colors to identify different computer systems. That way, the operators had more freedom to customize the machine to their needs. (His “superboxes,” striking, alter-like wardrobe units that could double as makeshift walls and additional storage, are another example of his functional and adaptable design.) For his innovative vision, Sottsass earned the Compasso d’Oro award for outstanding Italian industrial design in 1960.
From the late 1950s, Sottsass started to work in ceramic, inspired by his travels to India, Ceylon, Nepal and Burma around the same time. Collections including Ceramiche tantriche (Tentric Ceramics) and Yantrea di terracotta (Yantras of Terra-cotta) premiered a few years later in Milan, revealing influences from the Art Deco era, along with Aztec-like symbols and shapes. As Sottsass himself explained in Ettore Sottsass: Architect and Designer, “[The pieces] represented a particular force whose power or energy increased in proportion to the abstraction and precision of the diagram.”
Upon his return from India, he was diagnosed with nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys) and traveled to California in 1962 to seek medical attention. While in San Francisco, Sottsass met many of the beat poets – Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen – and launched the publishing house East 128 with the Italian writer Fernanda Pivano. The small press mainly translated beat poetry into Italian but also Sottsass’s own essays and writings.
With four decades of work under his belt, Sottsass continued to innovate and experiment. In fact, he was starting to have even greater cultural impact. In 1980, he founded Sottsass Associati in collaboration with Marco Zanini, Aldo Cibic, Marco Marabellie and Matteo Thun. The younger architects, under Sottsass’s guidance, conducted the studio’s main work, focusing mostly on large-scale architecture as well as stores, showrooms and interiors. Upon seeing one of these structures, the eye is delighted by the eccentricity and playfulness: bright colors accent and define different areas of the building, sharp angles cast intriguing shadows and curved doorways make one feel as if entering a dream world. The structures are not funhouses, however, but meticulously thought-out spaces meant to be comfortable and calming. Most of Sottsass’s designs include plenty of open space to let in a generous amount of natural light, while still creating a sense of privacy in each area. In the essay “Imagining Utopia,” James Steele describes Sottsass as having a “single-minded determination to create a new, humane, architectural language, the synthesis of all other experimentation in which [he] has engaged during his long career.”
A year later, in 1981, Sottsass launched his most influential group of designers, Memphis, with established associates from other firms as well as younger designers he knew. Encompassing members from around the world – including de Lucci, Martine Bedin, George James Sowden, Gerard Taylor, Arata Isozaki, Hans Hollein and Michael Graves – Memphis drew inspiration from Art Deco and Pop Art movements. The group’s first exhibition in 1981 at Salone del Mobile in Milan featured over 40 objects. From couches to clothing to textiles, the designs are almost obnoxiously colorful and wild – a dare to end modernism with an approach that asserted superiority of “meaning” over formal values. This splashy new aesthetic – described by the New York Times as “deliberately, aggressively and intensely innovative” – started a movement of Post-Modernism that influenced much of the 1980s and ’90s, even after the group disbanded in 1988. During this period, Assocati continued to be active, with Sottsass stepping out of the Memphis spotlight around 1985 to spend more time on his own architectural commissions, such as the Wolf House, the Olabuenaga House, the Zhaoqing Golf Club and Resort, and the Milan Malpensa Airport.
At the turn of the millennium, Ettore – well into his 80s – had yet to slow down, creating a new series of furniture in 2003 exhibited at The Gallery Mourmans in Maastricht, Netherlands, and a retrospective in 2006 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which he begrudgingly helped curate. “It’s like having a birthday party where too many relatives show up, a sign that too much time has passed,” he said of the show. The tireless and prolific Sottsass died on December 31, 2007. His influence will continue for decades to come.
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