The Met Breuer’s exhibition makes the case that it wasn’t just an aesthetic Sottsass unleashed on the world, but a particular way of interpreting the past and imagining the future.
The late, legendary Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass has been — to paraphrase Yogi Berra — rediscovered all over again. In recent years, his work has been shared with wide audiences through a series of articles and “explainers,” like this recent short video from Vox, or this 2014 piece about Memphis by Alissa Walker that appeared on Gizmodo. And his profile got a big boost from his prominence in the exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970—1990 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2011. Sottsass’s work (or that of his contemporaries and imitators) has been featured in all its wacky glory in Miami Vice, in movies like Beetlejuice and Ruthless People, and in the perfectly postmodern Christmas episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse that featured Grace Jones. Concurrent with the happy rediscovery of the “Sottsass look,” design studios around the world have been producing boldly hued and playfully geometric wares for consumers who have tired of colorless minimalism. The moment that a field of squiggles appears on a Formica surface, or a printed textile seems to resemble the cover of a marble notebook, the spirit of Sottsass is duly invoked.
But the designer, who lived to be 90 and worked for nearly seven decades across an array of different media and styles, did far more than bring “Saved by the Bell chic” into existence. Because his work is so often bound up with that of Memphis, the Italian design collective he co-founded in 1981, and of postmodernism in general, a fuller appreciation of Sottsass’s diverse career is overdue. Thus, in his centennial year (he would have been 100 in 2017), a refreshing survey at the Met Breuer called Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical aims to introduce both seasoned admirers and new fans to the breadth of the designer’s oeuvre. Though the title evokes the lingo of the tubular 1980s, this exhibition makes the case that Sottsass wasn’t just superficially “rad” in the Moon Unit Zappa sense of the word (although he was that, too). Rather, he was a true excavator of history: radical in its Late Latin meaning of “having roots.” A good deal of the material on display here draws inspiration from or refers back to the art and architecture of the ancient world. So the encyclopedic Met, with Egyptian jewelry and Mesopotamian ceramics aplenty in its permanent collection, is a fitting place to appreciate Sottsass’s singular, exuberantly odd vision.
Sottsass was born in 1917 in Austria and brought up in Turin, Italy, the son of a modernist architect who was also named Ettore Sottsass. After graduating from the Politecnico di Torino in Turin in 1939, he served in World War II and spent time in a labor camp in Yugoslavia. At the end of the war, he returned to Italy and got to work with his father designing buildings to replace and improve upon what had been destroyed in the conflict. He set up his own office in 1947 in Milan and began working in an increasingly wide array of media: painting, sculpture, jewelry, furniture, architecture, and industrial design.
What fails to come across in the typical “’80s explainer” version of the Sottsass story is that he left his mark on several very distinct design movements over the course of his career, and this is precisely what makes him so hard to categorize. The Met Breuer exhibition presents the artist’s works alongside “friends” that highlight either a shared genre or superficial similarities — sometimes both. In the “Early Career” section, Sottsass’s ceramics from the late 1950s, decorated with grids and stripes, and his geometric shelving units are paired with drawings and objects by Wiener Werkstätte designers Josef Hoffmann (who was nicknamed “Square Hoffmann” by his contemporaries, for exactly the reason you’d expect) and Kolomon Moser from the turn of the 20th century. Non-chronological additions, like a black and white teapot by American postmodernist Peter Shire, “Two Tone Cone” (1981), demonstrate the geometric, black-and-white impulse echoing down the timeline from fin de siècle Vienna to early 1980s Los Angeles.
One of Sottsass’s best-known projects was a commercial failure: the Valentine Typewriter, a bright red, plastic portable gadget he designed with Perry King in 1968 for Olivetti. The Valentine has become the quintessential “design museum” object: It’s beloved for its cheeky approach to the design of otherwise-drab office equipment, like an early ancestor of the original iMac, but because it wasn’t a terribly reliable or efficient machine, it isn’t the sort of device (like the IBM Selectric) that stayed on in offices after the computer revolution because it did its job just fine. Sottsass had hoped it would be a utopian, affordable object that would give users joy, and his frustration with its fate is immortalized in an Instagrammable quote from 1993, which is reproduced on its pedestal: “I worked sixty years of my life and it seems the only thing I did was this fucking red machine. And it came out a mistake. It was supposed to be an inexpensive portable, to sell in the market, like pens…Then the people at Olivetti said you cannot sell this.”
Viewed through the prism of the Valentine episode, what comes next for Sottsass makes a lot of sense: After a brief stint working in George Nelson’s office, he abandoned corporate modernism and hit the road. He traveled the world studying the art, architecture, and design of dozens of different civilizations, and took a transformative trip to India in 1961. The work that emerged from these journeys is his most timeless, and for me, this section of the exhibition is the most successful, perhaps thanks to my pro-ceramics bias. As the sixties unfolded, Sottsass became fascinated with totems of various kinds and began creating large sculptures comprised of ceramic cylinders. Five of the totems that comprised the Menhir, Ziggurat, Stupas, Hydrants, and Gas Pumps (1965–66) project (first exhibited at Galleria Sperone in 1967) are shown in a group, inside an egg yolk–yellow room. Around the perimeter, smaller ceramic works with the recognizable steep-stepped silhouette of a ziggurat are shown with ancient analogs: an architectural vessel made between 400 and 600 AD from Moche culture in Peru, a metal reliquary in the shape of a Stupa from the kingdom of Kashmir in 7th–9th century India, and dozens of others.
The “totemic” quality of these sculptures, paired with their irresistible candy colors, rings a bell: In the galleries that follow, we’re re-introduced to the furniture and objects we thought we knew. Now, looking at the tall, imposing Superbox Sottsass designed for Poltronova in 1970, with the image of a rectangular Chinese ritual object circa 2400 BC still in mind from the previous room, it seems it’s not just modernism that Sottsass was channeling, but mystery. The Superbox is paired with contemporaries: a metal and acrylic Donald Judd work from the same year, with roughly the same proportions, like a cabinet missing its overcoat, and a return visit from Koloman Moser, whose 1903 wood and glass cabinet shows us a very early stab at the repudiation of ornament that came to define modernism in the 20th century. The Superbox, which sports black and blue stripes, suggests a different way to think about the ornament-free movement. As a functional cabinet, and as a totemic object in its own right, its playful, circus-like stripes suggest a secret inside. Rather than a “freedom from” approach to surface decoration, it suggests that a lack of ornament might inspire the observer to contemplate what secrets might be found in its interior.
Like other avant-garde Italian designers of his era, particularly Joe Colombo, Sottsass was intrigued by systems. “Environment,” his contribution to the landmark 1972 exhibition at MoMA, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, is the most overtly political of all the works referenced here. (It is not on view itself, but is referenced in printed material and through a film that plays continuously.) “Environment” was a prototype of modular cabinets that could be configured in almost any combination to support a small, large, or shared living space. Colombo’s 1971 “Total Furnishing Unit,” which was also featured in Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, is a modular solution for a single person or a couple, with a finite allocation of space and resources. “Environment,” by contrast, is theoretically limitless; it could just as easily furnish space for a commune as for one individual. Thinking back to the failure of the Valentine typewriter, it seems Sottsass’s utopian impulses were best channeled through a project that was too far out for the marketplace. Instead of conceiving of the world as a landscape for purchases and households, he wanted to reimagine what a household could be.
The Memphis group, which was established in 1981 and namd for the song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” by Bob Dylan, remains the work for which Sottsass is still best known, and that’s unlikely to change in the near future. A review in Bloomberg News of this very exhibition totally misses the point, with the headline “This One Man Colored the 1980s in Pastel.” The one-dimensionality of this persistent view seems to be precisely what Sottsass was trying to shake off during his global travels, experiments in totemic furniture design, and commune-modernism.
When we come into contact with Sottsass in the wild, it’s usually indirectly. Memphis furniture is highly collectible and far too expensive to be commonplace. Almost no one actually uses a Valentine Typewriter. And employing a modular “Environment” setup would not be practical or even feasible in most living situations. So the “explainers” are, in a sense, right: The most common Sottsass experience one is likely to have is of his vision, his color palette, his love of squiggles and zigzags, and his confident indifference to notions of good taste. This exhibition makes the case, mostly convincingly, that it wasn’t just an aesthetic that Sottsass unleashed on the world, but a particular way of interpreting the past and imagining the future.
Memphis furniture, like the Postmodern movement itself, paired high with low, ancient with modern, highly skilled woodwork with mass-market Formica. The Carlton Room Divider—perhaps the mascot of Memphis—was built to house books, but it hasn’t got a right angle anywhere. (Sottsass remarked that books always seem to lean to the side, anyway.) It’s just this sort of gesture that makes it seem as though the eye-popping quality of his aesthetic is a red herring, and that the real “wow factor” in his work is that his choices make us question what we thought we knew about ordinary things: the quality of materials, environments, typewriters, bookshelves. Tugging at the root of how we live and interact with the objects in our lives, as opposed to just decorating their surfaces, is an act of radical design, indeed.