Cultural machines

Ettore Sottsass is indusputably one of the greatest designers alive, but his contribution is far from easy to categorise. Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, explains why it will honour his work

When, back in 1981, the Memphis movement exploded the conventional idea of what passed for contemporary design, Ettore Sottsass, its guiding genius, had already qualified for his old-age pension. But far from giving up, Sottsass was embarking on what turned out to be the most successful and radical period in a career that had already been exceptionally creative.

A quarter of a century later, Sottsass, a grave figure with the sad eyes of a bloodhound and a carefully tied ponytail, is celebrating his 90th birthday this year. It’s a birthday that the Design Museum will mark with Work in Progress, an exhibition that opens on 28 March and looks at six decades of remarkable work.

He’s still active, still working with a studio in Milan, and still gently acerbic, but very good company. And he is still in demand from clients ranging from ICF, for which Sottsass Associati designs office chairs, to Bonnar, a British carpet manufacturer, to lush, baroque, sculptural pieces by Ernest Mourmans.

Greatness is the most over-used word in the lexicon when it comes to describing successful figures. But, with Sottsass, it is nothing less than his due.

It was Sottsass and a few others, notably Achille Castiglioni, who showed how contemporary design could go beyond the utilitarian, or the cynically manipulative, and become a genuine form of cultural expression.

Born in 1917 and trained, like his father, as an architect, Sottsass had worked in a number of studios in Turin, before setting up on his own in Milan designing domestic objects, lighting, glassware and furniture destined to be made in tiny numbers.

Sottsass had a knack of being in the right place at the right time. He built his career as an industrial designer just at the time that Italy was going through its miracle after World War II, establishing itself as a modern economy by investing heavily in new products and production lines. Sottsass was there when Olivetti went looking for somebody to work on the form of its new mainframe computer.

Sottsass had already worked in the office of George Nelson in the US, and was able to offer the promise of American know-how for the project. And he had spent a spell in California, allowing him to experience the first stirrings of the counter culture at first hand.

It was this combination that really set Sottsass apart. He was ready to engage the real, everyday problems of working life in an office, but he was also absorbed by the expressive qualities of objects. His typewriters were designed to merge into the background, rather than become visually intrusive show-offs. His Elea 9003 mainframe computer for Olivetti, introduced in 1959, was as big as a small house, but it was designed so that its operators, who tended it in air-conditioned sterility, were not made to feel as if a machine had swallowed them up. And to this sensitivity, Sottsass added a feeling for the emotional qualities of design. The keyboard for the Elea 9003 communicated that you were in touch with something important and momentous. This was the portal to the future, and Sottsass made it look ‹ the part by searching his subconscious memory for the visual clues suggested by sacred objects through the ages.

Equally significant, as much for what it was as for what it did, was the Valentine, a portable typewriter designed with Perry King for Olivetti. Of course, now manual typewriters are dead technology. In those days the Valentine was consciously designed to suggest that it was an essential part of the modern world. Sottsass made the breakthrough of giving a product category associated with office routine a domestic, playful quality – through its moulded plastic body, and its vivid red colour scheme. It’s a trick that Jonathan Ives and Apple were to repeat.

To move from the world of the Olivetti factory to the deliberately transgressive assault on conventional good taste of the Memphis movement that Sottsass founded might seem like a huge turnaround. But, in fact, there is a powerful sense of consistency throughout Sottsass’s output, from his ceramics and glassware from the 1950s, to the highly tactile work coming out of the studio today.

And it is in this quality, as much as in Sottsass’s ability to operate within an industrial world, but not to be consumed by it, that his greatness really lies. Sottsass has seen too much to be deluded by the shiny optimism of a glossy surface. And yet he knows how to make something beautiful out of the sadness that comes of experience.

Ettore Sottsass – A Life in Design runs from 29 March to 10 June at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1

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