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Hippie Modernism, Italian Style

A centennial retrospective examines Ettore Sottsass's enduring legacy

A view of the recently mounted Sottsass retrospective at the Vitra Design Museum.
Courtesy Vitra

How do you make Ettore Sottsass’s bed?

That was the question facing curator Christian Larsen, who placed Sottsass’s 1992 couch, with a scrolling pearwood footboard and a headboard textured like a high block wall, at the end of the new Met Breuer retrospective of the Italian architect’s work, “Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical.” Should he play up the fairytale aspect of sleeping in a castle with a white fur counterpane? Or go with something more monkish?

In the end, the answer became clear: you make it “very plainly.” White sheets and a single pillow. The ascetic as king.

The question of bedclothes is not trivial to understanding the work of Sottsass, who would have been 100 this year (he died a decade ago, in 2007). Best known as the ringleader of Memphis, the short-lived and wildly patterned design collective that defines 1980s style, Sottsass was perpetually tweaking the nose of modernism while embracing its machines, its manufacturers, and even its colors.

He built totems like standing stones while travelling like a nomad, made plastic rare by putting it into the hands of skilled craftsmen. He made expensive objects of dubious taste while seeking to make furniture that “is of absolutely no importance to us.” He owned his contradictions; Sottsass curates himself.

And, at a moment when we seem inundated with lookalike, lightweight, and taste-neutral furniture, Sottsass is back. His centennial is the ostensible reason for a crop of retrospective exhibitions (seriously, who started keeping track of these birthdays?)—in Venice, at the Met, at the Vitra Design Museum, at the Milan Triennale, at the Stedelijk next year—but in fact, it’s more than time to celebrate a designer who thought more about our emotional attachment to things than how to make an ergonomic seat.

Sottsass was the son of an architect so determined his offspring would follow in his footsteps that he moved the family to Turin so young Ettore could attend the best school. He graduated in 1939, but spent his afternoons hanging out with a painter. His big break came in the late 1950s, when he was hired by two of Italy’s most avant-garde corporations—not then an oxymoron—where he had the opportunity to experiment with new materials and new machines, like the first all-transistor computer, the Elea 9003. Those mainframes were the size of a room, totems for a new age, and from this point on one begins to see in Sottsass’s work the drift of ideas about scale, modularity, and toughness from the office machine … to the office … to domestic life.

Ettore Sottsass, 1974
© Photo Bruno Gecchelin, 1974 by SIAE 2017

His earliest Tower-furniture was made for the apartment of Mario Tchou, engineer of the Elea. The Met now owns a particularly fine piece from that apartment, made of lacquered and gold-leafed wood, which resembles the meeting of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Japanese domestic architecture.

In each room at the Met Breuer retrospective, some Sottsass object reaches toward Marcel Breuer’s waffled ceiling, challenging the architecture to keep up. It’s only in the galleries on the north side, where one of Breuer’s windows intrudes, that the room’s angles compete with that of their contents.

Consider, for example, the possibility of storing all of your worldly goods in one of Sottsass’s striped laminate Superboxes. Throughout the exhibition, the curator pairs Sottsass subjects with other objects from the Met’s collection, making visual connections between the designer’s shapes and precedents both ancient (Egyptian amulets from 664-30 BC), and contemporary (Studio Job circa 2009).

Sottsass began designing the Superboxes in 1966 for the furniture manufacturer Poltronova as a way of showing off new plastic laminates made by Abet Print. The laminates appealed to him as neutral materials. They were not an imitation of wood or marble, but something unto themselves. Sottsass’s sketches for the boxes look like children’s drawings of skyscrapers, playing with stripes rather than windows. The stripes emphasized the material’s flatness and seamlessness.

Few were ever manufactured, but they circulated as photographs: white rooms with a Superbox in the center and almost nothing else. A white duvet, a projector, both of which may have emerged from the box. It turns out these are mostly photographs of paper models. Most of these monoliths were, in reality, only a few centimeters high.

“I always think one should not throw away my objects,” Sottsass later wrote, in one of a number of quotations collected for the Vitra exhibition. “When I design something, I always put a base underneath… To put something on a base means to detach it from the surrounding chaos and assign it a special position where you get in a relation with it.”

Buy this, and you need no more.

Sottsass’s Superbox is a weighty thing, but he also played with portability. Should the nomad carry everything with him? Or should he plug into a communal grid?

His answer to the first question was the Valentine typewriter for Olivetti (1969), the cutest typing device that ever was (sorry, iMac). Wall projections at the Met show both Olivetti’s superlative advertising for the Valentine, as well as superfans like Brigitte Bardot, wearing her Valentine and a very short striped sundress. Sottsass came to hate his association with the machine that, like so many postwar designers’ attempts at the mass market, could not be manufactured cheaply enough, and failed to connect with its audience. But I dare you not to price-check one.

The Valentine typewriter.
AlbertoFioravanti/Courtesy Studio Ettore Sottsass

Compare his product-utopian quote of 1968—“It is called Valentine and was invented for use in any place except in an office, so as not to remind anyone of monotonous working hours”—with his later, bitter one: “I worked sixty years of my life, and it seems the only thing I did is this fucking red machine.”

The microenvironment he designed for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1972 exhibition, “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape,” feels like a self-edit. The Valentine had been insufficiently counter to the prevailing Italian design culture that, as exhibition curator Emilio Ambasz noted, was divided into conformist (“the aesthetic quality of single objects”) and reformist (how can product design not induce consumerism) camps. Sottsass proposed a new series of plastic boxes with internal functional components—stoves, bookshelves, shower, jukebox—approximately the size of refrigerators. The modern family could link up just the elements they needed at the moment, and wheels made them light enough for a child to push around.

The home became not a room but a furniture series that, like the Superboxes, was independent of walls and roof. The elements were also communal, designed, as Sottsass wrote, “so that after a time it fades away and disappears.” The people comfortable with these boxes would be of a new type who don’t feel the need “to demonstrate continually their imagined status, nor to live in houses that are nothing other than cemeteries containing the tombs of their memories.”

If the microenvironment, and even the Superbox, were totems for a simpler life, the work of the Memphis design group (1981-1987) took a different tack toward the problem: not reduction but addition, not science fiction but collage. Critic and Sottsass companion Barbara Radice’s 1984 book on Memphis remains the best source on what the group’s 20-odd members thought they were after. It opens with a reproduction of the invitation to the first Memphis show, held in Milan in September 1981, on which Luciano Paccagnella illustrated a giant, slobbering T-Rex. Invited into the mouth of the beast, over two thousand people showed up. “We thought there must have been an accident,” Radice wrote, “We couldn’t even get in.”

Inside, the ravenous design-lovers discovered a panoply of pattern, upholstery, lamination, and shape-making, including Masanori Umeda’s Tawaraya Boxing Ring, in which the designers later posed. Like many of Sottsass’s objects, the ring proposes that architecture is not necessary: It’s at once a freestanding conversation pit, a tatami room, and a bed with lamps conveniently built into the four corners.

One of Sottsass’s contributions was the Carlton bookcase (1981), a centerpiece of the Met Breuer show and part of the museum’s permanent collection. The Carlton is so often reproduced it has become a wordless symbol for “Memphis,” and it is its shapes, colors and material that contemporary designers often imitate, albeit at tabletop scale. The real Carlton is another totem, this one angled and posed, as Larsen suggests, like either a robot or a many-armed Hindu goddess. The hyper-functional storage wall by George Nelson (for whom Sottsass briefly worked) has gotten zapped with color, in the form of carefully cut and pieced colored laminates, and shape, through a variety of 60-degree angles. Efficiency has taken an unexpected turn, now animated and extroverted, though this piece also seems intended to render all other furniture obsolete.

The Carlton bookcase.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Most of Carlton’s shelves are made of solid-color laminates, but the base is one of Sottsass’s most enduring patterns, Bacterio. “Design Radical” displays a giddy and comprehensive collection of two-dimensional designs by Sottsass and others, demonstrating his devotion to making the everyday weird. “Schizzo,” or sketch, reproduces the pattern of composition book covers on a teal cotton fabric; “Veneziana” turns trendy terrazzo into laminate that makes you look twice. Larsen has juxtaposed Sottsass’s slightly fuzzy squiggles with one of Nelson’s textiles, itself inspired by ancient forms, depicting the wares in a “China Shop.” (1953). Nathalie du Pasquier, Memphis’s other pattern powerhouse, is represented by yards of the intricate “Gabon” fabric in red, green and yellow (1982). The stripes on the Superboxes look timid in comparison to the explosion of color and imagined texture on these completely flat surfaces.

“If I put a crudely colored piece of laminated plastic next to a fragment of a tree root, an object with a certain dignity, a vibration is set up between them,” Sottsass said. Good taste, bad taste. But which is which? The contradictions are built in.

For all his unruly spirit, Sottsass’s designs never came cheap. The Carlton’s original list price was $14,040; I found one for sale online for $21,376 this week. But when you think about needing only one piece to make a room—taking your bed out of the cupboard at night, or letting the bed be the room—it ends up being more economical than five pieces of cheap furniture. Many contemporary designers, in search of novelty, have been tempted to run wild in the garden of Memphis pattern or shape. (The Met Breuer will be selling some “inspired-by” work in their shop.)

Sottsass was a superlative stylist, a quality he shared with Nelson and employees like Irving Harper. I see a lot of Nelson’s spirited Marshmallow sofa in Memphis and its precursors, though the scale and surprise of Sottsass pieces is entirely different from America’s midcentury preference for plywood and stacking. As we rattle the wardrobe of the past for new sensations, it seems inevitable that we catch the brightest thing that falls out. (And for children of the 1980s, teal evokes an especially Proustian charge.)

I love a Nathalie du Pasquier tote bag as much as the next person, but it isn’t changing my life or our culture: It is a thing to put stuff in. Instead of Scandinavian severity, we get vases with angular bits and bobs hanging off the sides, or stools, like those by Oeffice included in the exhibition, that riff on Greek column capitals but are made of marble. So heavy, so luxurious. Where’s the joke in that?

The Memphis-inspired design of today is sensation without sense, only radical insofar as it deviates from the minimalist look that has come to symbolize “having style.” Flipping through the catalog for “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape,” it is astonishing how many designers were making similar-looking work in the early 1970s, either curving planes or squashy seats. Sottsass’s 1969 Nefertiti desk, a square arch of striped laminate, immediately stands out then, and it would now. What makes Sottsass so good is how seriously he took each material he worked in, and how he used furniture to make the architecture say Uncle. If I had that castellated bed, I might never get out of it.

My favorite Sottsass quote (I’ve quoted it before, will definitely quote it again) is this: “Everything culturalized after a while becomes tasteless. It’s like eating cardboard. So then you need to add mustard or cut up little bits of cardboard and eat them with tomatoes and potatoes. All the better if you don’t eat any cardboard at all.” That’s what his design is like: tasty all the way through.