Italian designer and architect
“I make no special difference between architecture and design, they are two different stages of invention.”
Ettore Sottsass (born September 14, 1917, Innsbruck, Austria–died December 31, 2007, Milan, Italy) was a seminal figure in 20th century design, a prominent and unconventional post-modernist Italian designer and architect, and founder of the design collaborative named the Memphis Group. He was born in Innsbruck, Austria, but his family moved in 1929 to Turin, Italy, where he grew up. 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 returned home to Turin and joined his architect father in the reconstruction efforts to rebuild old buildings damaged by the war. In 1946, he moved to Milan to curate a craft exhibition at the VII Triennale di Milano, and in 1947, he set up his own architectural and industrial design studio, where he soon started to create a wide range of work using different artistic expressions, such as ceramics, painting, sculpture, furniture, photography, jewelry, architecture, and interior design.
In 1956, Sottsass traveled to New York City to work in the office of George Nelson–the American industrial designer considered as one of the founders of American modernism. This visit, although relatively short, had an important impact on Sottsass and influenced the design of his 1970s office furniture for Olivetti and his 1980s patterns for the Memphis Group. read more
Collaboration with Poltranova
Back in Italy in 1957, Sottsass joined Poltronova, a manufacturer of contemporary furniture, as an artistic consultant. It was at this time that Sottsass first expressed his unique creative approach with bold colors and distinctive shapes, creating many iconic designs from his pre-Memphis era, such as the Canada sofa and Canada armchairs (1959), the Panca bench (1960), the Lotorosso table and Califfo settee (1965), the Superbox cabinet and Asteroid lamp (1968), the Nefertiti writing desk (1968), and the Ultrafragola mirror and Pranzo Aromatico table (1970), among many others. It was during this period in Milan that he started to formulate what would later become his characteristic Memphis designs. read more
Collaboration with Olivetti
In 1958, Sottsass started to consult for the newly formed electronics division of 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. During his time at Olivetti, Sottsass also established a personal relationship with its President, Roberto Olivetti. This relationship would be beneficial beyond Sottsass’ career interests. 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, that same year, his first Compasso d’Oro industrial design award. Also for Olivetti, he designed several electric typewriters, such as Praxis (1964); the Tekne typewriter (1969); and the iconographic Olivetti Valentine portable typewriter in collaboration with Perry King (1969), for which he won another Compasso d’Oro award in 1970. He also designed the Summa 19 calculator (1970) and the Synthesis desk chair (1973), among other products.
Trips to India and the influence of Indian culture on Sottsass’ work
In the autumn of 1961, while he was working at Olivetti, Sottsass and his wife, Fernanda Pivano, went to India to design a stand for the Italian chemical company Montedison for a trade fair. This first trip left deep intellectual and stylistic impression on the 44-year-old Sottsass, but, unfortunately, it also left him severely debilitated with a kidney infection. Thanks to Roberto Olivetti, Sottsass recovered from this serious ailment at the Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, California.
During his recovery at Stanford in 1962, Sottsass started to develop designs with marked American pop influences, and it was also at this time that he conceived his iconic totem designs. After returning to Italy, Sottsass and Pivano traveled to India repeatedly and published 19 books between 1963 and 1968, many with short essays and translations of ancient Indian texts.
Sottsass’ works and designs of this period show a marked reference to these trips. Among these works are his ceramic plates from Offerta a Shiva (1964) and the industrial totem ceramics in the exhibition Menhir, Ziggurat, Stupas, Hydrants & Gas Pumps, where Sottsass was inspired by Indian and Mesopotamian structures that express the desire to ascend toward the heavens as well as by fire hydrants and gas pumps. In 1972, Sottsass designed the chair Tappeto volante (Flying carpet), for Brevetti, in which he continues to display the influences of his trips to India and eastern spirituality.
In 1984, when Sottsass’ interest was squarely focused on architecture, he brought together Indian craft traditions and international designers to create a collection of one-of-a-kind products. This exhibition led him to create, in 1989, a series of turned wood houseware objects for the Alessi subsidiary Twergi.
Establishment of the Memphis Group
By the end of the 1970’s, Sottsass collaborated with studio Alchimia, founded by Alessandro Guerriero, which was an important promoter in the establishment of New Design in Italy. Then, leaving Alchimia, at a meeting on December 11, 1980, Sottsass founded the Memphis Group with the architects Martine Bedin, Aldo Cibic, Michele de Lucchi, and Marcon Zanini, and his wife, the critic Barbara Radice. The name Memphis was taken from Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” which he had been playing repeatedly at the time of the meeting.
The group aimed at dismantling what they perceived to be the rigidity of modernity and rationalism with a lively and instinctive reaction to the gentrification of design. In 1981, more than 2,000 people attended the opening of the Memphis Group’s first exhibition in Milan. From the inception of the group until 1985, Ettore Sottsass designed, produced, and exhibited furniture, ceramics, and other objects with a post-modernist style that was influenced by Art Deco, Pop Art, Kitsch, futuristic themes that were common in the popular media of the 80s, and non-western cultures that so fascinated Sottsass. Some important designs from this period are the Carlton and Casablanca shelves and the Ashoka lamp (all from 1981), the Tahiti lamp (1982), the Tartar console (1985), and a great variety of ceramic and glass pieces, among others.
Return to architecture
In 1980, Ettore Sottsass established Sottsass Associati with the intention to build larger-scale architectural projects as well as to design for large international corporations. But it was not until 1985, when Sottsass left the Memphis Group, that he returned to focus on his architectural practice at Sottsass Associati. He created numerous architecture design projects, including the Olabuenaga house in Maui (1989), with Johanna Grawunder; the Wolf House in Colorado (1989); and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ravenna (1992).
In 1993, Sottsass collaborated with Andrea Branzi and Michele De Lucchi on the research project for the creation of Swiss furniture manufacturer Vitra’s new offices, and in 2000, he designed Milan’s Malpensa airport.
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Last updated: February 8, 2020
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In 1972, he participated in the Museum of Modern Art’s (New York) exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape,” which also included design objects of many of the important Italian designers of the time, such as Vico Magistretti, Enzo Mari, Gaetano Pesce, Mario Bellini, and Paolo Lomazzi. In 1978, he collaborated at Studio Alchimia with Michele De Lucchi and Alessandro Mendini participating at the “New Design” exhibition at the Salone del Mobile.
Since 2006, Ettorre Sottsass has had his works shown at numerous solo and prominent group museum exhibitions, including the following:
- “Ettore Sottsass: Architect and Designer,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, March 12–June 11, 2006.
- “Ettore Sottsass a Life in Design”, at the Design Museum, London, UK, March 29–June 10, 2007;
- “Ettore Sottsass”, at the Ghent Design Museum, Belgium, September 30–December 31, 2007
- “The Avantgarde: We Were Exuberant And Still Had Hope—Ettore Sottsass: Works from Stockholm, 1969”, at Marres, Centre for Contemporary Culture, Maastricht, Netherlands, December 12, 2009–February 13, 2010.
- “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990,” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK, September 24, 2011–January 15, 2012.
- “Colore, glas van Ettore Sottsass,” at the Nationaal Glasmuseum, Leerdam, Netherlands, March 18–October 2, 2016.
- “Ettore Sottsass—Rebel and Poet,” at the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany, July 14–September 24, 2017.
- “Ettore Sottsass. Design Radical,” at the Met Breuer, New York, NY, July 21–October 8, 2017.
- “Ettore Sottsass. Oltre il Design,” at the CSAC, University of Parma, Italy, November 18, 2017–April 8, 2018.
- “Ettore Sottsass and the Social Factory,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, FL, April 18–October 6, 2019.
- “Memphis—Plastic Field,” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs et du Design, Bordeaux, France, June 21, 2019–January 5, 2020.
- “Radical: Italian Design 1965-1985, The Dennis Freeman Collection.” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. February 14, 2020–April 26, 2020.
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