A seminal figure in 20th-century design, Sottsass (1917–2007) is now the subject of a retrospective exhibition at The Met Breuer in New York City titled Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical (running through October 8, 2017), which looks at Sottsass’ career through his key pieces. It presents his work by juxtaposing it with ancient and contemporary objects from The Met's collection, while offering new insight into what influenced his practice.
Born in Austria and raised and educated in Italy, Sottsass followed in the footsteps of his architect father, who was also named Ettore Sottsass. The younger Sottsass was educated at the Politecnico di Torino in Turin, graduating in 1939 with a degree in architecture. He then joined the Italian military during World War II, returning home after the war to work alongside his father to create modernist versions of buildings that were destroyed during the war. In 1947, he set up his own architectural and industrial design studio in Milan and began to establish his own practice by working with a variety of different media.
In 1956, he worked in the United States for two years for the office of George Nelson. He then returned to Italy to work as an artistic consultant for Poltronova, a producer of contemporary furniture—and then on to Olivetti to be a design consultant. He would become well-known for the functional designs he created during this early time of his career, such as the Elea 9003 mainframe computer (1958) and the iconic Valentine typewriter (1968), both for Olivetti.
By the 1960s, Sottsass began to move away from his own modernist beginnings in favor of qualities that went beyond the functional. He designed objects imbued with symbolism and historic references, infusing modern design with a sensitivity for the human condition, which many people at the time felt modernism largely ignored. It was a shift that also coincided with a highly influential trip to India in 1961.
In December 1980, Sottsass and a group of like-minded designers got together in his small Milan apartment to form the Memphis Group. The name for the collective was a nod to the Bob Dylan song, "Stuck Inside of Mobile Wth the Memphis Blues Again," the ancient capital of Egypt, and the modern city in Tennessee. The group reinterpreted design’s basic elements: function, form, material, surface, and color, producing modern furnishings that were a radical departure from the accepted design conventions of the time.
The totemic "Carleton" Room Divider from 1981 is a perfect example of Memphis principles. Its visually disjointed form is antithetical to neatly ordered, conventional bookcases. Sottsass justified the odd angles by claiming that books never stand straight anyway.
Like Memphis, "Carleton" self-consciously embodies pop and vernacular references that play with perceptions of high and low. It was veneered in inexpensive plastic laminates like those used on countertops in American diners during the 1950s, yet constructed using very fine cabinet-making techniques. While marketed and priced beyond the reach of average consumers, it demonstrates Memphis’ insistence on a designer’s creativity and agency to determine the final product—a value that contributes to the blurring of the art and design markets and the rise of "collectible design."
Take a tour of the exhibition, which is on view at the Met Breuer through October 8, 2017.
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