In the 1960s, Italian designer Ettore Sottsass, then in his 40s, was already known in his field: he made office supplies sexy, spinning out furnishings (like cherry-red typewriters) in wet hues that doused color-sapped cubicles. It was at this point in his career that he started traveling to India regularly, smitten, it would seem, by the country's built vespers of color—a welcome change from the stark forms of the modernism that were popular in a period fueled by the cooly unencumbered swank of beatnik culture. At some point in the the next decade or so, Sottsass came across a town that, as Architizer writes, became "his goldmine of inspiration." Tirunamavalai City, in South India, looks like it belongs on It's a Small World. The houses there feature the elements that Sottsass, who died in 2007, ultimately became known for: bent geometries, squiggly lines, brash colors that divide and distend each piece. The discovery was game-changing.
According to AD Magazine, the Architectural Digest outfit in France, each house in Tirunamavalai was built primarily by the families themselves. Here extravagance and color is a point of pride; the more ostentatious the house, the happier the homeowner. While houses first began to pop up in the region the ninth century, these particular houses date back only to the 1940s or so.AD, which got the tour of the home of a Brahmin priest, describes the interiors as "a staggering pile of kitsch," with alters covered in "glitter tissues" and a computer set on asymmetrical shelves.
While the connection between Sottsass' work and Tirunamavalai wasn't explicit until '89, when an art critic noticed similarities in the "vivid color [and] assembling Lego type," it's easy to see the influence it had on Sottsass beginning in '81. That year he and a global bunch of young architects founded Memphis Group (named after Bob Dylan's Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, which they listened to on the drunken night of the group's founding), which launched a collection of furniture, rugs, ceramics, and lighting with Tirunamavalai's palette and forms. The collection is thought to be post-modern in a nutshell: ornamental and ironic, a direct rejection to the staid forms of modernism. "Memphis is like a very strong drug," Sottsass said in a 1986 Chicago Tribune piece. "You cannot take too much. I don't think anyone should put only Memphis around: it's like eating only cake."
In 1988, Sottsass wrote about another way the South Indian town influenced him: "It was clear that in every place I visited, there were people who saw the houses with great care. [...] One can sometimes experience this determination without logic when we design and build a house."
Despite post-modernism's fade from Western stylishness, the aesthetic tradition remains in the town that started it all: there's "no recoil mixing genres," as AD writes. Symbols of freedom and consumerism, some imported from tourists, are casually dunked into the traditional forms. AD summarizes (in computer-translated English):
"Perhaps the Hindu way of thinking makes it easy to not have to choose between one time and another, and thus allows for this crazy cohabitation. But if the multicolored façades of houses in Tirunamavalai are pure aesthetic provocation, their internal organization still meets the traditional lifestyle of their owners, without any conflict." As for Sottsass, he'll always be a textbook post-modernist, known for his intellectual frivolities, theoretical approach—"I don't design things in any style [...] I design things for life states"—and brusque interviews. His style may have long gone out of favor in the design world, but in the place where it all began—well, let's just say the colors don't run.
· The Kitschiest Houses That Inspired Ettore Sottsass [Architizer]
· Indian Building Games [AD Magazine]
· Ettore Sottsass interview [Design Boom]