Ettore Sottsass: Radical Cheek

Stuck inside the Met Breuer with the Memphis blues and reds


There doesn’t seem to be a single earthly object that the Austrian-Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass (1917–2007) didn’t create, or re-create, over his sixty-year career. Possessed of a ravenous mind and tireless hand (as well as, presumably, a hummingbird’s energy), he designed the bestselling Valentine portable typewriter for Olivetti and the showrooms for the fashion brand Esprit. He produced playful lines of tableware for Alessi and worked across nearly every medium, including ceramics and glass. As an architect-cum-designer he shifted the scale of the world, transforming ordinary household objects into mini-monuments and dreaming up homes that might be mistaken for overblown children’s toys. If Sottsass is most widely appreciated as a founder of Memphis — a design collective most people consider a garish, modish relic of the 1980s — an exhibition at the Met Breuer focuses on recuperating his legacy as a radical thinker whose tender spirit and unshakable belief in the magic of all things lie at the heart of his irreverent works.

Born in Innsbruck during the Great War, Sottsass was a son of the twentieth century, heeding — and feeding off of — both its regressions and its innovations. He followed in his architect father’s footsteps, receiving his degree in Turin in 1939 and then working for Fiat designing auto parts to avoid being sent to the front lines of World War II. Later, he fought and was taken by the enemy as a P.O.W. “During this stupid war,” he wrote, “wherever I went I found nothing funny, nothing heroic, nothing instructive. It was an absolute waste of time.” Violent acts of destruction made no sense to a man who was a preternatural creator, one who also painted with terrific seriousness, apprenticing himself to the potency of color. Throughout his life, he took photographs wherever he went, accumulating thousands upon thousands of images captured from life. He would stay up late, drawing into the wee hours. He traveled widely, absorbed the lessons of other cultures, all with the determination to reimagine how the world should ideally work.

Form follows function had long been the modernist credo: an efficient strategy, to be sure, but also a limiting one. Sottsass believed form could assert itself alongside function — infuse objects with spirit, magic, joy, while still getting the job done. As his first wife, the writer Fernanda Pivano, recalled: “He would tell me that every object requires its own space where it is able to exist…he told me that the problem was having enough energy to enter another dimension.” In other words, things should also fill our spaces with appropriate warmth and feeling, raise the vibrations of a room, and perform as portals through which we might see and access possibilities far richer than those offered by our otherwise serviceable reality.

After the war, Sottsass focused on graphic design, creating logos, advertising campaigns, and book covers, and worked with his father, Ettore Sr., until his passing in 1953. By the late 1950s he’d begun designing not only for Poltronova, which produced left-of-center furniture, but also for Olivetti. In 1961 Sottsass visited India for the first time and was impressed by how its cultures embraced the simultaneous experiences of darkness and light. His senses were sharpened by the vivid sights of the dead being burned by the rivers, as well as the colorful fields of flowers and vegetables that covered the mountains. “There, sometimes,” he wrote, “life is in my hands.” In 1962, when he became deathly ill with acute nephritis, he conceived of a series of twenty-one ceramic totems that he later installed in the 1967 exhibition “Menhir, Ziggurat, Stupas, Hydrants & Gas Pumps.” (Five of these works are on view at the Breuer). Entwining the energies of faith (menhir, ziggurat, stupa) and industry (hydrants, gas pumps), these polychromatic, exuberant columns celebrate the two forces to which Sottsass owed his recovery: human ingenuity (by way of science and medicine) and the good fortune bestowed upon him from unknowable realms.

Perhaps more than faith, Sottsass’s designs express a kind of gratitude — for life, yes, but also for the mysteries of being and the ways in which humans concoct grand narratives to ground themselves within cosmic chaos. “Offerings to Shiva” is a series of a hundred circular terra-cotta platters he created in 1964 to honor the Indian goddess, a handful of which are installed across from his totems. His kachinas from the early 2000s are regal yet funky glass vessels that nod to Hopi katsina dolls, figures that served as translators, travelers, between the earthly and celestial worlds.

These ethereal underpinnings bubble up throughout Sottsass’s work — never frivolous, always reaching, even when it appears decidedly unserious. Gravity is a quality rarely ascribed to the work he did between 1981 and 1986 with Memphis, the collective of twenty-some designers from around the world who led the Eighties postmodern design rebellion, though the group was propelled by a sense of urgency, of deep concern, regarding design’s place and power in the world. “Our fear of the past is gone,” Sottsass explained of their mission, “and so is our still more aggressive fear of the future.” Named for Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” (the song was playing in the background of their first meeting at Sottsass’s apartment), Memphis worked without manifesto, without hard-and-fast rules, relying instead on conversation and a shared energetic pull toward the new.

The final room of the exhibition showcases selections of Memphis’s furniture, jewelry, and other productions, inimitable yet (now) archetypal in their goofball monumentality, their witty use of industrial materials like laminates, acrylics, and plywood, and their prosthetic aesthetic that rejects seamlessness in favor of the dynamic grafting of shape and color and material one onto the other. Sottsass’s iconic “Carlton” bookcase (1981) looks like an oversized tribal diadem, its stately presence softened by its topsy-turvy composition, its shelving set at odd angles as though the whole thing were in mid-tumble. So it also goes for his Tartar Table (1985), which appears the product of an architectural collapse, blunted columns performing as table legs, its thick tabletops covered in wood veneer.

Christian Larsen, the exhibition’s curator, smartly organizes the presentation to locate Sottsass on a historical continuum from antiquity to the present, placing his work alongside numerous objects from the Met’s vast collection. We see Sottsass the inheritor, the inspired, shaped by influences ranging from Ptolemaic pillars and Tibetan mandalas to Frank Lloyd Wright and the Wiener Werkstätte. We see Sottsass the influence, forefather to projects like One Laptop Per Child and to contemporary designers such as Oeuffice, which appear to take from him almost wholesale. Yet too much context steals focus from the star of the show, needlessly overwhelming and confusing the eye. (At times, the display of so many objects apart from his own feels like filler, where one would instead wish to see more of his work.) For example, the gallery featuring two of Sottsass’s Superboxes (c. 1970) — freestanding, striped cupboards he cheekily designed to be placed in the middle of a room — also features a Donald Judd iron-and-Plexi stack, an ancient Egyptian box that held shabtis (effigies to assist the dead), and a Kolomon Moser cabinet of the early twentieth century. All are beautiful, to say the least, but together clutter a space better given to Sottsass alone, or with less interruption, so we could better witness how his designs radiate, and reshape, every room in which they appear.


“Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical”
The Met Breuer
945 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021
Through October 8