ETTORE SOTTSASS (1917 - 2007)

« Le devoir de l’artiste doit être d’indiquer les chemins de la fantaisie, de la surprise de l’Indépendance. »

Sottsass was born in the mountain town of Innsbruck, in his mother’s native Austria, in 1917. His father, Ettore Sottsass Sr., was an architect. Early on the seeds of the craft were planted in the young Sottsass, who would watch his father work with fascination. In 1929, the family moved to Turin, Italy, where Sottsass Sr. had the promise of better jobs and where Sottsass Jr. could attend the prestigious Politecnico di Torino. After graduating in 1939 with a degree in architecture, he dutifully joined the Italian military during World War II. 

When Italy switched over to the Allied forces in 1943, many Italian soldiers, including Sottsass, were captured by the Germans. He lived out the rest of the war in a concentration camp in Sarajevo, where his native German tongue came in handy, 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 led him to shift focus from architecture to design. 

After a month in the U.S., he returned to Italy where he worked as an art director for design company Poltronova. In 1958, he took a job in the electronics division of Olivetti, an Italian typewriter manufacturer founded in 1908 and known for its attention to industrial design. That position would lead to some of his most iconic designs, like the Elea 9003 mainframe computer and the Valentine typewriter. In the mid-1960s, Sottsass designed a series of plastic laminate cupboards called “Superboxes” for Poltronova, which, with their bright colors and totem-like form were an early precursor 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 cheeky name is in part a reference to his song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” as well as the ancient capital of Egypt and the modern city in Tennessee. Though Sottsass has been considered the group’s leader, that is not a position Sottsass would have wanted to take on. “He detested any type of institution or hierarchy,” the designer’s widow, Barbara Radice, once noted. “He didn’t like anything that told you what to do. He believed everybody should find their own way of doing things.” From its debut at Milan’s 1981 Salone del Mobile, the movement generated sent ripples through the design community. In 1982 in New York, Sottsass organized the first stateside exhibition of Memphis, titled “Memphis at Midnight,” which opened to an eager crowd of over 3,000 people waiting to cram inside the Chelsea loft showroom where the works were displayed. 

The Milan-based collective of designers—including Michele de Lucchi, George Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier—banded together to challenge the rationalist design principles they had been taught. They employed unexpected forms, bold colors, graphic patterns, and cheap materials—like plastic—to forge a new approach to design. If there was such a thing as a “Memphis style” it was characterized by an attitude more than anything else. 

Sowden once said that the scope of Memphis “consists of broadening the area of style itself, of never being satisfied with what has already been done, and of looking for a new style all the time.” Though the work coming out of the designers’ studios was met with both repulsion and fascination—and was never a major commercial hit—its concepts and attitude ended up being a dominant force in the design world throughout the 1980s. 

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. Though Sottsass tended 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 saw life as continuous, and every element of his practice was part of a much larger whole. 

Source: Alexandra Alexa on Artsy