Ettore Sottsass was a versatile and unpredictable designer. His work ranged from corporate mid-century modernism to wild postmodernism, from buildings to ceramics, and he drew on a wide variety of influences including cubism, Pop Art and Egyptian, Indian and native-American crafts. There was a danger in all this flux: some critics came to see Sottsass as merely reacting to changing tastes. But while it’s true that his work embodies the angular minimalism of the 1950s as well as the colourful maximalism of the 1980s, a new exhibition at the Met Breuer in New York, “Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical”, shows that he formed fashions rather than followed them.
Sottsass was born in Innsbruck, Austria-Hungary in 1917 to an Italian father and German mother. After the first world war they moved to Turin, where, after serving in the Italian army in the second world war, he followed his father into architecture. Not that he limited himself to that. He also made furniture, jewellery, sculpture and photography. In 1958 he began working with Olivetti designing typewriters, turning an unsung secretarial appendage in to a design classic with the Valentine. His Elea 9003, an early computer, tamed the elephantine bulk of mainframe machines into something orderly, angular and manageably small. As well as taking on new technology, he confronted old problems is fresh ways. In the 1960s he tackled storage, and came up with the Superbox, a cabinet system designed to replace every other cupboard and chest in the house – and to sit not against walls but in the centre of the room.
He is best known, though, as the leader of Memphis, a postmodern collective in the 1980s which specialised in radical and rule-breaking furniture and product design. Their work incorporated materials like glass, neon tubes, laminates and fibreglass, and was a riot of gaudy colour. They chose their name because of its rich associations: rock ’n’ roll, American suburbia and the ancient capital of Egypt. Their designs took inspiration from both the mass-produced plastics and primary colours of 20th-century consumer culture and the stark geometry of pyramids and obelisks. While many people hated it, others loved its brave experimentation. Davie Bowie was a voracious collector and Karl Lagerfeld decorated his apartment in Monte Carlo entirely with Memphis pieces.
In the exhibition the Superbox sits near a shabti box from Egypt, which held good-luck “mummiform effigies”, and an elegant cabinet by Koloman Moser from 1903. The design’s high-sided simplicity also recalls the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The wall note describes it as a “vertical gesture toward the cosmos”, the portentousness of which ignores the colourful striped laminates of the one on the right in this picture, which add a dash of Pop Art to its rigid geometry.
Valentine typewriter (1968)
When faced with a commission for the grey world of office work, Sottsass turned to colour. In this marvellous, angular design, he offered visual spark “so as not to remind anyone of monotonous working hours”. The Valentine was available in white, green and blue, but its most popular incarnation was in postbox red. It exemplifies Sottsass’s belief that design is about stimulating emotions as much as offering functionality. Such was the attachment that people felt to their Valentine that is has become a design classic despite the fact that it didn’t work very well. Still, it could have been worse. In his initial designs, Sottsass wanted to get rid of lower-case letters and the bell to create a more streamlined and quiet device. Olivetti balked at these ideas, and Sottsass disowned the product.
Carlton room divider (1981)
Equally totemic is the Carlton room divider, perhaps the most famous design the Memphis group ever created. Halfway between a bookcase and a piece of installation art, it has the sharp edges and straight lines of a robot, a head like a television, and the many-armed form of the Hindu goddess Durga. Sottsass had high hopes for this and other products in its line: he wanted it to become a fixture in many homes. For most people its cost was prohibitive, but it did attract wealthier fans, among them David Bowie, Prince and Lagerfeld.
Effira vase (1986)
Sottsass’s vases seem often vaguely humanoid: here, perhaps, is a woman in a large hat, with earrings almost as big as she is. But they also nod towards traditional totemic or sacred objects, like the Katsina dolls nearby – small, carved figures which in the Hopi tradition represent messengers between the human and spirit worlds. Sottsass travelled widely, and came across symbolic artefacts all over the world. He borrowed their sensual forms and colours and gave them a sleek, contemporary twist.
Omaggio 3 (2007)
De Stijl, the Dutch art movement founded by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, was another influence on Sottsass. Here the framed panels of colour familiar from a Mondrian painting have found three-dimensional form in a cabinet with nine sections designed, like the Superbox, to stand in the middle of the room rather than line the walls.
Daniel Wolf Residence, Colorado (1986)
Even though he branched into so many other areas of design, Sottsass continued to define himself as an architect and to take commissions for buildings. This house, muted at the bottom and colourful above, is made out of a series of volumes of various sizes, and borrows the bold palette of the Memphis group. As Deyan Sudjic, director of London’s Design Museum, wrote in “Ettore Sottsass and the Poetry of Things”, “he liked the idea of being an architect better than being defined as a designer, no matter how gifted. Sottsass’s architecture was a series of intense highly personal spatial experiments that stood almost entirely outside the architectural conventions of their time.”
Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical Met Breuer until October 8th