Sottsass, Ettore (1917-2009)

Ettore Sottsass is one of the most important creators in the design history of the 20 century. He worked as an architect, designed ceramics and glasses, was art director of the Poltronova furniture factory, designed office machines and pieces of furniture for Olivetti. He got an international reputation as one of the protagonists of the Anti-Design movement and founder of the Memphis group in the beginning of the 1980s. In contrast to stern rationalists who tried to implement the postulate „form follows function“ of pioneers like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe in Italy, Sottsass strove for a new design vocabulary in all genres he devoted himself to. He focused on colours, sensual materials and an archetypical symbol system.

Sottsass began his career as an architect. After graduating from Politecnico Turin he entered into his father’s, Ettore Sottsass sen, company. In 1947 he went freelance, opened his own architect’s office and took part in furthering the social housing for INA. Working as an architect alone could not hold him occupied. He wished to try all kinds of means of expression, characterised his companion since 1976, Italian writer Barbara Radice. Sottsass would write articles for Domus, organise exhibitions, create sculptures, ceramics and glass objects. And he painted, as well.

One of his water-colours from 1956 shows vertical and horizontal gestural brush strokes, dominated by a red grate. Inspired by works of Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, Sottsass took spontantaneous grates and circles to decorate the ceramics and carpets he created in the 1950s. In 1957, Sottsass became art director of Poltronova and for more than 20 years he realised over 50 innovative projects for the newly founded factory in Pistoia. For example, the elegant sofa table or the sophisticated ‚Ultrafragola’ mirror or the ‚Loto’ table. Sottsass introduced new colours and materials into the furniture sector. Moreover, at Poltronova, he met the members of Archizoom and Superstudio. Together, they organised the first Manifesto exhibition of the Radical Design in 1966. Consequently, Sottsass put his radical understanding of design into practice at Italian office machines factory Olivetti.

Next to his glaring red ‚Valentine’ typewriter, his ‚Synthesis 45’ swivel chair counts among the classics. In the 1980s, Sottsass reached international Superstardom when he became one of the founders of the Memphis group of designers. Their aim was to publicize the Radical design and pioneer a more artistic furniture design. Inspired by historic styles, Kitsch and Pop Art, the members, among them Michele de Lucchi, Marco Zanini, Matteo Thun and Sottsass disassociated themselves from the principles of Good Design and broke new aesthetic ground. In many cases polychromatic plastic laminates were used, as is the case with Sottsass’ classic ‚Carlton’ bookcase, from 1981. Throughout his life, Sottsass also liked to shape objects of ceramic or glass. From the very beginning, these items were far away from being only decorative articles. For Sottsass, they were in fact ‚catalysers for cultural awareness’ (B. Radice, Ettore Sottsass, Leben und Werk, Munich 1992). From the 1990s on, Sottsass and his Sottsass Associati firm in Milan designed numerous architectonic major projects all over the world, spanning from a detached house in Zurich to the famous Wolf house in Colorado.

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