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Ettore Sottsass was a grandee of late 20th century Italian design. Best known as the founder of the early 1980s Memphis collective, he also designed iconic electronic products for Olivetti, as well as beautiful glass and ceramics.
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Wherever he went, Ettore Sottsass carried a camera to photograph anything that caught his eye. Doors, temples, kitchens, billboards: nothing escaped him. This was a man who took 1,780 photographs on a twelve day trip to South America, who toyed with publishing a book consisting of pictures of walls and for years photographed every hotel room in which he had slept with a woman.
Ettore Sottsass devoted his life and work to dismantling the past in his various roles as artist, architect, industrial designer, glass maker, publisher, theoretician and ceramicist. The past to him was the rationalist doctrine of his father, Ettore Sottsass Sr., a prominent Italian architect. Fond though he was of his parents, Ettore Jr. favoured a different approach. “When I was young, all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism,” he once said. “It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.”
After the war, he worked on housing projects with his father before moving to Milan in 1946 to curate a craft exhibition at the Triennale. For the next decade, Sottsass continued to curate as well as pursuing his passion for painting, writing for Domus, the art and architectural magazine, designing stage sets and founding a practice as an architect and industrial designer.
In 1956, Sottsass and his first wife, Fernanda Pivano, travelled to New York. “It really did look like (Fritz Lang’s 1926 film) Metropolis: everybody rushing around, noone caring a hoot,” he recalled. “It was incredible, in fact, I changed inside out.” He was commissioned to create a line of ceramics during this visit, but was also inspired to concentrate on industrial design, rather than architecture, after spending a month working in the studio of the US designer, George Nelson.
Back in Italy, Sottsass agreed to become a creative consultant to Polotronova, a furniture factory near Florence. In 1958 he accepted a more demanding consultancy role for the newly created electronics division of Olivetti, the Italian industrial group. Sottsass was hired by Adriano Olivetti, the founder, to work alongside his son, Roberto. Together with the engineer, Mario Tchou, they created a series of landmark products which were technically innovative and aesthetically appealing thanks to Sottsass’ love of pop art and Beat culture. They won the prestigious 1959 Compasso d’Oro with the Elea 9003, the first Italian calculator, and revolutionised typewriter design with Olivetti’s first electronic model, the Tekne, in an elegantly angular Sottsass case.
By the late 1970s, famous designer Sottsass was working with Studio Alchymia, a group of avant garde furniture designers including Alessandro Mendini and Andrea Branzi, on an exhibition at the 1978 Milan Furniture Fair. Two years later, Sottsass, then in his 60s, split with Mendini to form a new collective, Memphis, with Branzi and other 20-something collaborators including Michele De Lucchi, George Sowden, Matteo Thun and Nathalie du Pasquier.
He then concentrated on Sottsass Associati, the architecture and design group where he worked with former Memphis members and younger collaborators, including industrial designer James Irvine and architect Johanna Grawunder. Sottsass returned to architecture in 1985 when commissioned to design a chain of shops for Esprit.
Ettore Sottsass completed a series of private houses – including one in Palo Alto for industrial designer, David Kelley – and public buildings, notably Malpensa 2000 airport near Milan. Sotsass Associati has also worked for Apple, NTT, Philips and Siemens, while Sottsass himself continued with his artisanal projects in glass and ceramics. Revered in Italy as a doyen of late 20th century design, Ettore Sottsass is also cited as a role model by young foreign designers, such as Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, for the breadth – as well as the quality – of his work.