Ettore Sottsass was a grandee of late 20th century Italian design. Best known as the founder of the early 1980s Memphis collective, he also designed iconic electronic products for Olivetti, as well as beautiful glass and ceramics.
Wherever he went, Ettore Sottsass carried a camera to photograph anything that caught his eye. Doors, temples, kitchens, billboards: nothing escaped him.
This was a man who took 1,780 photographs on a twelve day trip to South America, who toyed with publishing a book consisting of pictures of walls and for years photographed every hotel room in which he had slept with a woman.
“Most normal people don’t like to face the reality that all things eventually decay,” he wrote later. “I believe that the future only begins when the past has been completely dismantled, its logic reduced to dust and nostalgia is all that remains.”
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. favoured a different approach.
“When I was young, all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism,” he once said. “It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.”
Throughout the 1960s, Sottsass travelled in the US and India while remaining a central figure in the Italian avant garde and designing more landmark products for Olivetti culminating in the bright red, poppy plastic 1970 Valentine typewriter which he described as “a biro among typewriters”. Although Sottsass later dismissed the Valentine as “too obvious, a bit like a girl wearing a very short skirt and too much make-up, it is still seen as an iconic ‘pop’ product. His furniture was equally influential: notably the mid-1960s “superbox” closets in stripey plastic laminate developed for Polotronova. In 1972, Sottsass’ mobile, multi-functional fibreglass furniture unit was the toast of the Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibition at MoMA, New York.
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 20-something collaborators including Michele De Lucchi, George Sowden, Matteo Thun and Nathalie du Pasquier.
Memphis embodied the themes with which Sottsass had been experimenting since his mid-1960s ‘superboxes’: bright colours, kitsch suburban motifs and cheap materials like plastic laminates. But this time they 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, it was an intellectual lightning rod which liberated them from the dry rationalism they had been taught at college and enabled them to adopt a more fluid, conceptual approach to design. The Memphis collective’s work was exhibited all over the world, until Sottsass quit in early 1985.
He then concentrated on Sottsass Associati, the architecture and design group where he worked with former Memphis members and younger collaborators, including industrial designer James Irvine and architect Johanna Grawunder. Sottsass returned to architecture in 1985 when commissioned to design a chain of shops for Esprit.
He completed a series of private houses – including one in Palo Alto for industrial designer, David Kelley – and public buildings, notably Malpensa 2000 airport near Milan. Sotsass Associati has also worked for Apple, NTT, Philips and Siemens, while Sottsass himself continued with his artisanal projects in glass and ceramics. Revered in Italy as a doyen of late 20th century design, Ettore Sottsass is also 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.