The Radical Designs of Ettore Sottsass
A new exhibition at the Met Breuer examines the legacy of the pioneering Memphis designer.
One hundred years after his birth, and a decade after his death, Austro-Italian designer Ettore Sottsass is finally getting his due.
Most commonly remembered as the founding member of Memphis—the fleeting postmodern design group that injected bright colors, exuberant patterns, and cartoonish forms into the cultural psyche of the 1980s—Sottsass’ many contributions to the field of design have remained relatively esoteric. He was a prolific creator, producing objects across a range of media, from ceramics and jewelry, to furniture and machines, but more, he was a seminal thinker who used a playful design sense to respond to and challenge aesthetic and cultural conventions.
Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical, on view now at the Met Breuer, seeks to convey the full breadth of his work, which navigates six decades of design history. But, according to associate curator Christian Larsen, this is not just another Sottsass retrospective (the last one in the U.S. was at LACMA 10 years ago). In fact, only about half the items on view are Sottsass’ designs. The other objects, ranging from a 14th century tapestry from the Yuan dynasty to an office chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, were chosen almost entirely from the Met’s vast permanent holdings, and represent works that either influenced Sottsass, or, alternatively, have been influenced by him.
“A retrospective is a worthy thing to do, but it has the effect of yet again presenting Sottsass as a kind of lone genius who doesn’t relate to anything else,” said Larsen at the exhibition preview earlier this month . “By anchoring him within historical tradition, you can see connections and understand his importance.”
The show begins with a series of autobiographical drawings completed in 1993 by Sottsass, who was born in 1917 in the Dolomites, a Northern Italian mountain region with Germanic roots. Across four pages, sketches and accompanying text, written in his signature block lettering, detail the simple joys of his life, from kissing girls to eating spaghetti. “All my designs look like small architectures,” reads one of the pages, next to a drawing of an ambiguously scaled rectangular vessel held up by a column on one end, and a straight edge on the other. “For me, this is a fruit bowl,” Sottsass wrote below it.
Although Sottsass was trained as an architect, buildings are not where he made his biggest mark; his architectural work constitutes the smallest portion of the exhibition, the highlight of which are his drawings of the 1987 Wolf residence in Colorado, a postmodern assemblage comprising a gable roof, cantilevered volumes, and a variegated assortment of materials and motifs. His father, Ettore Sottsass Sr., however, was a fairly notable architect in early twentieth century Vienna, having been educated in the vein of early modernists Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffman, and Adolf Loos, and who was later inspired by the rationalists of Mussolini’s Italy, including Giuseppe Pagano and Adalberto Libera.
Sottsass’ design sensibility was in many ways shaped by his father’s architectural leanings. A portion of the exhibit dedicated to his early career alludes to this influence by placing some of his early commissioned furniture alongside a building elevation and plan by Hoffman, textile designs by Bauhaus contemporaries Maragarete Willers and Gunta Stolzl, among other items. The pairing of these pieces with Sottsass, particularly his 1960 “furniture tower”—a vertical structure resembling a Frankenstein of styles—show the effect that Viennese proportion, and the geometric abstraction of the Bauhaus, had on his aesthetic.
The exhibit is for the most part organized chronologically, although it departs at moments to maintain groupings by medium. After his earlier work, the show segues into Sottsass’ corporate design for Italian machine and electronics manufacturer Olivetti, where he made history for developing the design for the first all-transistor mainframe computer, Elea 9003, in 1959. While the Elea is not on display, the 1968 Valentine portable typewriter—the object for which he was primarily known until Memphis, much to his dismay—is. By making the typewriter bright red and rendering its two ribbon spools in orange, suggesting a pair of nipples, Sottsass breathed an endearing personality into an ordinarily humdrum office gadget. The bright green accented One Laptop per Child, developed in 2005, is set alongside the Valentine, demonstrating the reach of its lighthearted design on modern technology (although the candy-colored shell of Apple’s iMac series seems a more apt comparison).
As the show transitions into Sottsass’ work from the late 1960s and early 70s, the pieces become more conceptual. There is the 1966 Superbox, a standalone, phone-booth sized cabinet made of plastic laminate-coated plywood designed for Poltronova—a contemporary furniture and products manufacture known as the “radical factory,” where Sottsass was artistic director. Designed in response to an increasingly mobile society, the Superbox was devised as an all-in-one storage unit that could be taken off the wall and presented as a piece of Minimalist sculpture—an intention made more robust by its placement in the middle of the gallery, juxtaposed with a 1968 vertical stack sculpture by Donald Judd.
A speculative prototype for modular living thought up by Sottsass in 1971, called Environment, was also informed by the nomadic lifestyle championed by the counterculture movement. The concept— a system of grey plastic containers, each with its own domestic function—is conveyed through a 1972 film made by Massimo Magri. The film, set to a score of Pink Floyd, follows a dystopian narrative that contextualizes the design’s possibilities within the political turmoil of the 60s, and its ability to “plug-in” and “plug-out” of its surroundings, much like the “Plug-in City” proposed by London-based experimental design group Archigram in 1964.
A gallery of ceramic totems is a striking introduction to Sottsass’ vibrant use of color, and reinforces his infatuation with vertical forms. Selections from a series called Offerings to Shiva, (conceived during the course of his near-death experience with nephritis in 1962), feature pillars composed of multi-colored discs stacked to towering height. Other smaller-scale pieces influenced by his first trip to India in 1961, including ashtrays and bowls, are also on view, set alongside a collection of ancient vases, ritual objects, and mandalas ranging in origin from China’s Han dynasty to Egypt’s New Kingdom. Sottsass’ work with surface patterns follow, with artworks by Vasily Kandinsky, Roy Lichtenstein, and Frank Stella to supplement.
The culminating section is dedicated to the theme of Memphis, which Sottsass pioneered in Milan in 1980 with a group of about a dozen multinational designers, including Nathalie du Pasquier (the subject of a new show at Pace London) and Los Angeles-based artist Peter Shire. Sottsass intended to mobilize a community around a revolutionary approach to furniture design—one that embraced hyper, incongruous expressions, as well as the marriage of traditional materials, like marble, with industrial ones, like fiberglass. The gallery’s centerpiece is the iconic Carlton bookcase (1981), a boyuant, multi-purpose piece of furniture which, like the Superbox, challenges conventional notions of what a storage unit can be. It is not only a bookcase, but also a chest of drawers and a space divider; furthermore, its form—a vivid interplay of voids and linear edges— conjures a range of visual interpretations, like a robot greeting its user with open arms. While the Carlton is perhaps the most recognizable of the Memphis items (David Bowie’s was auctioned off last year, along with several other Memphis pieces in his collection), there are many other objects that compete for the eye, like a writing desk by Gio Ponti that plays with neoclassical motifs, and a sculptural glass-and-silver shelving tower by Memphis member Andrea Branzi.
The show, Larsen’s first at the Met, is a valiant effort to communicate the trajectory of Sottsass’ fruitful and far-reaching career, especially considering that it was organized in only 9 months. The non-Sottsass pieces allow the viewer to see an eclectic mix of items outside of their respective museum contexts and in new light.
But while many of the juxtapositions are enlightening, some of them, such as the pairing of Environment with a 1996 Thomas Struth portrait of a Japanese family in their living room, seem like a bit of a stretch. They also have the effect of reducing Sottsass’ inspirations solely to designed objects: As a radical design thinker, he took cues from everything around him, as is documented by thousands of photographs he took throughout his life of subjects ranging from the beds he slept in to his extraordinary social circle, which included Allen Ginsberg, Max Ernst, Ernest Hemingway, and Bob Dylan (whose song, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again,” was the inspiration for the movement’s name).
Sottsass himself would have probably hated the idea of a retrospective. In a preface to a 1982 book of his work, he wrote on what he viewed as the dangers of presenting his designs in an idealized space: “It is not real life: the daily grind, the anxiety, the confusion, the excuses of a headache, or the radio that would not let you work in peace...in a finished space these things are no longer apparent.”
It may very well be impossible to encapsulate the multiple dimensions and layers that shaped Sottsass, but this exhibition is a worthy—and fun—introduction that leaves the viewer craving more.
Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical is on view at the Met Breuer through October 8th.