I first met Ettore Sottsass in the early 1980s when I had just become the curator for 20th-century design and architecture at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. With all of the excitement and controversy about the Memphis movement he’d spearheaded, I had written to Ettore about meeting him and seeing his work. As I look back now, he was in no small part fascinated, and perhaps a bit puzzled, as to why a young curator at the Met—versus the Museum of Modern Art—would be interested in Italian avant-garde design. But I sensed that Sottsass was a great designer and set about acquiring a body of his work for the Met. Thus began a friendship that would last more than two decades.
Sottsass, along with his contemporaries Achille Castiglioni and Gaetano Pesce, was quite simply one of the most revolutionary designers of the 20th century; his death on December 31, 2007, marked, in many respects, the end of a remarkable chapter in Italian design, if not a belated turning point from one century to another. His legacy was extraordinary. Sottsass forged a career that extended over seven decades, one that encompassed a prodigious number of disciplines. He worked with equal agility in virtually every design medium: architecture, interiors, exhibitions, furniture, glass, metalwork, ceramics, graphics, jewelry, and textiles. Perhaps most important, his approach to design was as distinctive as the objects he produced, for it marked a radical break with modernism.
“To me, doing design doesn’t mean giving form to a more or less stupid product for a more or less sophisticated industry,” he once declared. “Design for me is a way of discussing life, sociality, politics, food, and even design.” His work was not about function, innovative materials, new technology, or mass production—modernism’s central tenets. Rather, he believed design, like art or poetry, served a spiritual and cultural mission in society, as well as in daily life.
Accordingly, Sottsass blurred the lines between the fine arts, design, and craft in many ways. Austrian by birth (he was born in Innsbruck), he came out of a long decorative tradition; indeed, he was probably the most important 20th-century European decorative “architect-designer” since Josef Hoffmann. Sottsass further opened up the design arts to a variety of non-Western influences from India to North Africa, as well as aspects of popular culture such as vernacular and kitsch art. With his limited-edition handmade pieces, he maintained Italy’s great artisanal craft traditions; but he was equally adept, in his industrial designs for Olivetti and Alessi, in pushing technological boundaries. Sottsass was unusual as an artist in that he approached design from an intuitive and sensual—versus rational—perspective. In all these significant ways, he established an alternative conceptual basis for design in opposition to the prevailing aesthetic philosophy of the 20th century.
Sottsass’s radicalism reached a fever pitch in 1981, when he founded the Memphis group at the age of 64. It has now been more than a quarter century since Memphis burst onto the scene with its irreverent and erudite mélange of the “high” and “low”: from “Blues, Tennessee, rock ’n’ roll, American suburbs, [to]. . . Egypt,” as his longtime partner, the art critic Barbara Radice, has cited. We have lived through the innumerable bad imitations of Memphis and the resulting modernist backlash of the 1990s, so it is sometimes hard to remember just how radical Memphis was when it first appeared. Like the Wiener Werkstätte at the turn of the 20th century, the Memphis group had an immediate—and, ultimately, long-term—effect on the design arts. It was the first major decorative movement to challenge modernism in some 40 years, and it broke the predominance of that style for at least a decade. Memphis also proved to be the most controversial and pervasive of any of Europe’s postmodernist movements. Sottsass assembled an international consortium of several generations of like-minded designers, and while the group never evolved a common written manifesto, it did achieve a clearly identifiable style. Memphis was, moreover, one of the first design movements to use the vastly expanded international media to promote itself; the ratio of objects actually made to the press received was nothing less than phenomenal. Not least, Memphis made Sottsass into an international design superstar, a stature he maintained until his death.
So what is to be made of Sottsass’s legacy—which is very different from asking, what is his legacy? Like Frank Lloyd Wright and other giants, Sottsass jealously guarded his reputation, only rarely allowing independent assessments, such as Penny Sparke’s 1982 monograph. There were, fittingly, a host of retrospectives and publications during his last years, but none really defined the man and his accomplishments. To be fair, artists of Sottsass’s magnitude can never be defined. Each generation—and succeeding century—will find yet another aspect that resonates anew. So in the end, perhaps all we can say is that Ettore Sottsass was a most exceptional human being and a designer who will be remembered forever.
R. Craig Miller is curator of design arts and director of design initiatives at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.