Ettore Sottsass

Italian designer and architect


Ettore Sottsass (born September 14, 1917, Innsbruck, Austria–died December 31, 2007, Milan, Italy) was 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 the family moved to Turin, Italy, in 1929, 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, an American industrial designer considered one of the founders of American Modernism. This visit, although relatively short, 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. It is 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: Canada sofa and Canada 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. read more

In 1958, he 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. 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); the iconographic Olivetti Valentine portable typewriter in collaboration with Perry King (1969), for which he won another Compasso d’Oro award in 1970; the Summa 19 calculator (1970); and the Synthesis desk chair (1973) among other product designs.

In 1972, he participated in the Museum of Modern Art, 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 also collaborated at Studio Alchimia with Michele De Lucchi and Alessandro Mendini and participated at the “New Design” exhibition at Salone del Mobile. 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.

At a meeting on December, 11 1980, 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 the time of the meeting. In 1981, more than 2,000 people attended the opening of the first Memphis Group’s exhibition in Milan. From the inception of the Group until 1985, Ettore Sottsass designed, produced, and exhibited furniture, ceramics, and other objects with a postmodern 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 much fascinated Sottsass.  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 console (1985); and a great variety of ceramic and glass pieces, among others.

In 1985, Ettore Sottsass left the Memphis Group to return to architectural practice at Sottsass Associati where he completed numerous industrial design projects.

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, and in 2000 he designed Milan’s Malpensa airport.

Last updated: May 23, 2019

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

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