Portrait of Ettore Sottsass from 1969 leaning on his side with a turtle neck

Ettore Sottsass

Italian designer and architect


Ettore Sottsass (born September 14, 1917, Innsbruck, Austria–died December 31, 2007, Milan, Italy) was an Italian designer and architect. He was born in Innsbruck, Austria, but grew up in Italy. He studied at the Politecnico di Torino and graduated in 1939 with a degree in architecture. During World War II, he served in the Italian military and spent much of this time in a labor camp in Yugoslavia.

After the war, Ettore Sottsass joined his architect father in the reconstruction efforts to rebuild old buildings damaged by the war. In 1947, he set up his own architectural and industrial design studio in Milan, where he immediately started to create a wide range of work using different artistic expressions, such as ceramics, painting, sculpture, furniture, photography, jewelry, architecture, and interior design. read more

In the 1950s, Sottsass traveled to New York City to work in the office of George Nelson, an American industrial designer considered one of the founders of American Modernism. This visit would have an important impact on Sottsass, and influenced the design of his 1970’s office furniture for Olivetti, and in his 1980’s patterns for Memphis. Back in Italy in 1957, Sottsass joined Poltronova, a manufacturer of contemporary furniture, as an artistic consultant, and through this relationship Sottsass created many  iconic designs from his pre-Memphis era, such as: Canada settee armchairs (1959), Panca bench (1960), Lotorosso table and Califfo settee (1965), Superbox cabinet and Asteroïde lamp (1968), the Nefertiti writing desk (1968), the Ultrafragola mirror and Pranzo Aromatico table (1970), among many. It was during this period in Milan that he started to formulate what would later become his characteristic Memphis designs.

In 1958, he started to consult for Olivetti S.p.A. This relationship transformed and evolved into a fruitful and strategic relationship that lasted more than 30 years, but Sottsass’ contribution to Olivetti was substantial from the very beginning. In 1959, Sottsass designed for Olivetti the first Italian processor and assisted in the design of the first Italian mainframe computer, Elea 9003, for which he earned the prestigious Compasso d’Oro industrial design award. Also for Olivetti, he designed the Summa 19 calculator (1970), the Synthesis desk chair (1973), and several electric typewriters, such as Praxis (1964), Tekne and the iconographic Olivetti Valentine portable typewriter in collaboration with Perry King (1969), among others.

In the late 70s, he also collaborated at Studio Alchimia with Michele De Lucchi and Alessandro Mendini. In 1980, he established Sottsass Associati, which gave him the possibility to build larger-scale architectural projects as well as to design for large international corporations.

In 1981, Sottsass formed a design collaborative named the Memphis Group. This name was taken from Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” which he had been playing repeatedly at that time. From the Memphis Group’s inception in 1981 until 1988, Ettore Sottsass designed, produced, and exhibited furniture, ceramics, and other objects. The Memphis Postmodern style was influenced by Art Deco, Pop Art, Kitsch, and some futuristic themes of times that were common in the popular media of the time.  Some important designs from this period are: the Carlton and Casablanca shelfs, and the Ashoka lamp (all from 1981); the Tahiti lamp (1982), and the Tartar consolle (1985); and a great variety of ceramic and glass pieces, among others.

In 1993, Sottsass cooperated with Andrea Branzi and Michele De Lucchi in the research project for the creation of the Swiss furniture manufacturer Vitra’s new offices.

Last updated: February 22, 2019

For more information on Ettore Sottsass, visit the following:
Sottsass biography at designtechnology.org
Sottsass Italy

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