“When I was very small, a little boy of five or six years old, I was certainly no infant prodigy, but I did do drawings with houses, with vases and flowers, with gypsy caravans, merry-go-rounds and cemeteries……..”1
Thus began one of the more interesting design journeys of the twentieth century.
Born In Innsbruck, Austria, on September 14th 1917 as the son of an Austrian mother and an Italian, architect, father, Ettore Sottsass Jr was initially raised in Trento, South Tyrol, before the family moved to Turin in 1928, and where in 1934 he enrolled at the Architecture School of the Politecnico di Torino.
Arguably best known as the figurehead of and driving force behind the early 1980’s post-Modern Memphis Group, not only is there a lot more to Ettore Sottsass’s biography than Memphis, but in many ways Memphis was the culmination, or at least a next step, of that biography, and would have been unimaginable without the preceding biography.
Following his graduation from the Politecnico di Torino in 1939 Ettore Sottsass worked (very) briefly for FIAT before being enlisted into the Italian army where he served in Montenegro, Sottsass’s war ending in a prisoner of war camp in Sarajevo, in the then Yugoslavia. 2
Upon his return to Italy Ettore Sottsass discovered “a land in ruins, and where although there was obviously a need for a lot of building, it soon transpired that it should be done quickly and shoddily, for there was no money”3
A state of affairs which didn’t stop him at least attempting to make a contribution.
After initially basing himself in Turin Ettore Sottsass moved in 1947 to Milan where he opened an architectural practice and from where he won Marshall Plan competitions for projects in the northern Italian towns of Savona and Novara, and was commissioned to design 13 blocks of flats in context of various INA-CASA projects; projects conceived with the intention of providing simple, affordable, healthy flats as part of the national post-war rebuilding programme: and which by all accounts quickly became bogged down in the corruption and bureaucratic complexities which appear to have plagued public projects in Italy in perpetuity.
However despite such successes Ettore Sottsass remained largely overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, by the inabilities of the authorities, and his own, at least perceived, inadequacies for the task, and so turned his back on architecture in favour of writing, art and design.
In 1954 Ettore Sottsass began a cooperation with the US retailer Raymour, a cooperation which saw them distribute a number of his vases, ceramics and similar applied art objects, and a cooperation which in 1955 brought him into contact, and business, with the Tuscan ceramics manufacturer Bitossi and subsequently in 1957 with the Tuscan furniture manufacturer Poltronova, with whom Sottsass released a first collection in 1958 and with whom he continued to cooperate throughout his active career; a cooperation that not only helped advance Poltronova’s reputation as one of the most single minded, and certainly most contemporary, furniture companies in Italy, but which gave Ettore Sottsass the freedom to express his understanding of design.
Equally as important in the biography of Ettore Sottsass is Olivetti. In 1958 Adriano Olivetti offered Ettore Sottsass a position as an advisor to the company’s electronics division. At that time Olivetti were Europe’s leading, and arguably most forward looking, office technology company; and in many respects Europe’s IBM, for all in terms of their adoption of a design led approach to all aspects of the company’s products, operations and identity. IBM had Eliot Noyes, Charles & Ray Eames and George Nelson: Olivetti had Marcello Nizzoli, Mario Bellini and Ettore Sottsass. One could argue that USM had Fritz Haller, but that would be a little contrived. If only a little.
Ettore Sottsass’s collaboration with Olivetti is arguably one of the great success stories of the early years of European industrial design as a concious subject. In 1959 Sottsass’s first project with Olivetti, the Elea 9003 mainframe computer, was awarded the coveted Composso d’Oro, and was followed in the proceeding years by commercially and critically acclaimed works including the Tekne, Praxis and Valentine typewriter families, works which, or better put, because they introduced new formal and technological concepts became defining objects of 1960s Italian design.
Then during the course of the late 1960s and early 1970s Ettore Sottsass began to increasingly question what he was doing, for whom he was doing it and for all why he was doing it.
Not that Ettore Sottsass was alone with such thoughts. Globally an increasing number of young(er) architects and designers, invariably caught up in the counter culture movement that was developing globally and which would boil over in 1968, were questioning their role in society, questioning the role of architecture and design, and suggesting alternative futures; alternatives perhaps most famously represented by the works of groups such as Archigram in London, Archizoom & Superstudio in Florence or Ant Farm in San Francisco. In Italy such thoughts saw the development of what is referred to as the Anti-Design movement, even if the term is far too easy to be correct. Anti-Design is still design, but the more technically correct “anti design for the sake of advancing commercial interests and serving a narrow elite regardless of any considerations as to if the work is formally relevant, and far less what it means for the environment or the fabric of the society into which we place it”, is just a lot less catchy. Sharing a lot of philosophical and visual components with the Pop Art movement, Anti-Design with its works such as the Sacco beanbag by Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini and Franco Teodoro or the Joe Glove Chair by Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino and Paolo Lomazzi not only changed perceptions about design and household furnishings, but also created some of the most enduring classics of Italian design
Ettore Sottsass’s route to radical architecture and Anti-Design was arguably more a river with many tributaries than a clearly defined path.
Trips to America in 1951 and 1956 not only introduced him to the realities of post-war American consumerism and mass production – both of which were still to arrive in the largely artisan and unindustrialised Italy of that period – but also to leading protagonists such as George Nelson in whose office Sottsass worked for three months and with whom he remained in close contact. In addition those trips to America introduced him to then fledgling Pop Art movement, and the exposure to that new artistic thinking played an important role in the further development of his work.
A trip to India in 1961 brought Sottsass not only into contact with western hippy culture but also with Indian culture, where for example in the temples of the Pallava he understood the difference between constructing and creating, “the Pallava utilise large stones, and when they are building they work the surface such that the structure vanishes, and that annoys “modern” architects, and that’s why the modern architects are so fascinated by Japan, who only construct, the Indians are only sculptors”4
In addition the trip to India resulted in a serious case of nephritis; his search for treatment taking him to California where through his then wife, the translator and critic Fernanda Pivano, he met Beat Poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure, and thus individuals with whom he could share experiences and impressions of eastern culture, eastern philosophy and eastern aesthetics.
Such a “counter culture education” must however also be considered against the background of Sottsass’s youth in fascist Italy, his time in the army, experiences in the war and his unease with much of the regimentation, morality and mechanisation of Italian Rationalism. And his experience of the way the way the fascists had treated, and, in effect, silenced, the Rationalists; for although not approving of all aspects of Rationalism Sottsass wasn’t fundamentally opposed, indeed his father had studied in Vienna under Otto Wagner and had himself strong modernist leanings.
Sottsass’s response was to work at more intimate levels and with a focus on colours and materials, and as he puts it, “I made great efforts to design objects which generate as direct a sensory experience as possible”5. On the one hand Sottsass sought to counter a contemporary world where as he phrases it “civilisation existed in industrial culture”6 and give his works a character based more on vernacular and expressive parameters, and on the other to break what he saw as the very narrow and strict definition of design the inter-war functionalists, intentionally or not, had bequeathed society. For Sottsass we should engage and interact with objects not just on a physical level but also spiritually and emotionally, design must not just be functional but personal, those objects which surround us shouldn’t exist merely as a product of industrial production, but as part of our world and with whom we have a discourse.
A position which explains how someone so closely associated with radical and Anti-Design could at the same time design consumer objects for a global concern such as Olivetti.
“The work that I have done and continue to do for Olivetti” wrote Ettore Sottsass in 1976, “extends a long standing interest in research on the problems of existence and survival in the artificial spaces on this earth. It is said I was one of the first designers who found new ways, ways which led out of the school of so-called “functionalism” and towards the notion of a more sensory, less moralising and more humane environment”7
A position which has many parallels to, for example, Charles and Ray Eames’ concept of “functioning decoration” which saw them employ “homely”, humanising, textiles, folk art and contemporary art in their otherwise strictly functionalist realised home in Los Angeles. Or indeed a generation earlier with Alvar Aalto and his move away from the coldness of steel tubing to the warmth of moulded beech for his furniture designs.
In context of Ettore Sottsass’s work such a position can be understood in objects such as the Z9R typist chair from the 1973 Sistema 45 collection for Olivetti. Bright yellow and expressing a child-like, almost naive, enthusiasm for the world around it, the Z9R arose from a holistic design process that considered the object in terms of the users complete working day rather than simply in context of a specific function, and in which Sottsass sought to “exercise a sort of “yoga” on design, liberating the shape as much as allowed by our condition in time and space, and stripping from it every attribute, every sex-appeal deception”8
An essentially pared down modernist work inspired by eastern culture and intended to bring a little friendliness and humanity into the work place.
The latter being something Ettore Sottsass himself needed.
In his 1973 essay “When I Was Still a Very Young Boy”, with which we began this post, Sottsass describes his ever increasing dissatisfaction with the design industry and the place of the designer in that industry. From those innocent childhood days in South Tyrol Sottsass became a young designer and “everything we did was entirely absorbed in the act of doing it, in wanting to do it, and everything we did stayed ultimately inside a single extraordinary sphere of life. The design was life itself….” however the rise of the Italian design industry and the commercialisation of design meant that “now they only let me design furniture that ought to be sold, furniture they say, that is useful to society, they say, and other things that are sold “at low prices” they say, and in this way they can sell more of them, for society they say, and now I design things of this kind”9 yet that under conditions which for him were artificial, almost inhuman, and certainly far removed from the ultimate end user, and which led him to see himself, and by extrapolation all designers, as servants of commerce and industry rather than society
“I would like to break this strange mechanism I’ve been driven into”10, he exclaims.
Memphis can be understood as just an attempt to break that mechanism, an attempt to investigate what happens when one transposes the emphasis in “industrial design” from “industrial” to “design”, and then tries to find new approaches to design, when one re-evaluates the semantics of materials, explores new forms, new typologies, new expressions which are not about value and status but about people.
And thus a continuation of Ettore Sottsass’s search for a new vocabulary and linguistic order for design.
As with Poltronova, as with Olivetti, Memphis isn’t about the object.
Or as Ettore Sottsass wrote in 1976,
“What I designed, that was not so important to me. For me it was never so important …. I [have] never made a big difference between small and large things, between handmade things and things that are produced with subtle technology. For me it was not a matter of writing a novel, or a manifesto or recommendations, for me it was always more important to work on the words, their meaning and their implications, because you have to use different words when you want to say things, which [bring] changes in a world which is itself changing.
I don’t know if I have made myself understandable”11
Neither do we.
But that is part of what makes Ettore Sottsass so fascinating, makes his works and texts always worth going back to and exploring, regardless that they may occasionally irritate and offend, for every time you explore them you understand a little more. And not just about the object, but about the relationship between us and our objects, between design and society.
Happy Birthday Ettore Sottsass!
1. Ettore Sottsass, When I Was a Very Small Boy, http://designobserver.com/feature/when-i-was-a-very-small-boy/7937 Accessed 13.09.2016
2. Ronald T. Labaco (ed.) Ettore Sottsass, architect and designer, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Merrell, 2006
3. Kontinuität von Leben und Werk: Materialsammlung zu der Ausstellung Arbeiten 1955 – 1975 von Ettore Sottsass, Internatationales Design-Zentrum Berlin, 1976
4. Zdenek Felix (ed.) Ettore Sottsass, Adesso però: Reiseerinnerungen, Hatje Katze, Stuttgart, 1993
5. Jan Burney, Ettore Sottsass, Trefoil Publishing, London, 1991
6. Emily Zaiden “Instruments for Life: Conversations with Ettore Sottsass” in Ronald T. Labaco (ed.) Ettore Sottsass, architect and designer, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Merrell, 2006]
7. Kontinuität von Leben und Werk: Materialsammlung zu der Ausstellung Arbeiten 1955 – 1975 von Ettore Sottsass, Internatationales Design-Zentrum Berlin, 1976
8. Jan Burney, Ettore Sottsass, Trefoil Publishing, London, 1991
9. Ettore Sottsass, When I Was a Very Small Boy, http://designobserver.com/feature/when-i-was-a-very-small-boy/7937 Accessed 13.09.2016
10. Ettore Sottsass, When I Was a Very Small Boy, http://designobserver.com/feature/when-i-was-a-very-small-boy/7937 Accessed 13.09.2016
11. Kontinuität von Leben und Werk: Materialsammlung zu der Ausstellung Arbeiten 1955 – 1975 von Ettore Sottsass, Internatationales Design-Zentrum Berlin, 1976