If you hear the name of Ettore Sottsass you immediately associate it with Memphis, don’t you? but the true force of Sottsass is way bigger than any single movement or one design field.
Sottsass was born in 1917 in Innsbruck, Austria. In 1929 his family moved to Turin, Italy. In 1939 he graduated in architecture at the Politecnico di Torino.
After graduating with a degree of architecture, he dutifully joined to the Italian military during world war Π, Sottsass with many Italian soldiers were captured by the Germans; He lived out the rest of the war in a concentration camp in Sarajevo, where his native German tongue became useful, and he survived by being put in charge of the camp’s food store. In 1946 he moved to Milan, where he curated an exhibition for the Triennale and started contributing to the design magazine Domus. A decade later, he visited New York for the first time and worked with designer George Nelson, an experience that persuade him to shift focus from architecture to design. In the mid-1960s, Sottsass designed a series of plastic laminate cupboards called “Superboxes” which, with their bright colors and totem-like form were an early forerunner to his Memphis days. His work became increasingly more experimental and postmodern, as exemplified by his proposal for a mobile, multi-functional furniture unit that was exhibited in MoMA’s “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape” exhibit in 1972.
In December 1980, Memphis was born when a group of designers got together in Sottsass’s small Milan apartment. They had been listening to Bob Dylan records, and the group’s name is in part a reference to his song as well as the ancient capital of Egypt and the modern city in Tennessee. Though Sottsass was the group’s leader, that wasn’t a position he would have taken, He detested any type of institution or hierarchy. The “Memphis style” was using unexpected colors, graphic patterns and cheap materials like plastic to forge a new approach to design, to challenge the rationalist design principals they had been taught. But if there there was such a thing as a “Memphis style” it was characterized by an attitude more than anything else.
Sottsass left Memphis after a few years in 1985 and founded his own practice, Sottsass Associati (a firm that continues to operate today) and his focus once again turned to architecture, with projects like the design of Milan’s new Malpensa airport in 2000.
3- Not just un architect but a designer of everything
Sottsass is known not only as an architect and industrial designer but also for his large artwork including furniture, jewellery, ceramics, glass, lighting, interior, exhibition and graphic design. He was an enthusiastic photographer, from his teenage years along, and throughout his entire career, Sottsass took tens of thousands of photographs! “However I never thought of myself as a photographer when taking them, I was simply intolerably curious”. But this curiosity turned into exhibitions, book and billboards. His photography was his way of archiving everything he saw, recording a multitude of situation, facts and details.
Sottsass’s work was known for its variety, merging playfulness through ornamentation and colors. His Olivetti typewriter (1969), one of his most iconic designs, made of bright red-orange plastic, was a Pop phenome in both its functionality and innovative design. His architecture and design career spanned many decades and styles.
4- What inspired him?
He is source of inspiration for artists around world but what inspired Sottsass?
Though Sottsass leaned to describe himself as first and foremost an architect, he was something of a “Renaissance man.” He was also an industrial designer, a painter, a writer, a curator, and a photographer. He drew inspiration from spectrum of sources, like literature, anthropology, ethnology, geography and archaeology. Almost everything from details of walls, doors and window openers was inspiring for him, he took thousands of images everywhere. Part of an impressive social circle, he took portraits of notable characters like Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Chet Baker and Robert Mapplethrope. His photography was inflamed by his passion: Travel! “I believe you travel to confirm your ideas, and whatever you can’t confirm you discard as you travel”. “In a certain sense, you design yourself when you’re traveling”. He continued work with Olivetti but also took many personal trips to US and India, these trips would have turned out to be sources of inspiration for him. Whilst travelling in India, Sottsass was hypnotised by the prosperity of color in the culture that he favored himself to create a color revolution in his designs. Color played an important role in his work and was un ongoing amusement; although he didn’t approach color with scientific precision, but rather he was fascinated by its ability to raise memories and emotions.
5- Sottsass still inspires us!
Sottsass developed a series of iconic objects which he transformed their physical characteristics: They were full of symbolism, global and historical references and ability to entice user’s emotions. Undoubtedly The freedom of creative thought is the prime gift of Sottsass to us today. Ignoring the logic and marketing base rules are what we’ve learnt from his life and work.
Travel, take photos, explore new cultures and places and seek inspiration from everything around, don’t lock your creativity and experience everything!