Born in 1917 in Innsbruck and later passing away in 2007, Ettore Sottsass was not only a successful theorist, but an architect, ferniest, industrial designer, glass maker, painter, ceramic, photographer and much more. Sottsass was born to an encouraging family who had predicted his future as an architect in 1929 when they decided to move to Turin, the location of a leading architectural school. Upon graduation as an architect in 1939, Sottsass was unable to start practicing his newly acquired knowledge because he was drafted to World War II. After the war, he started working with his father on housing projects until he left for Milan in 1946 where he began a craft exhibition in the Triennial and started working for the Dumo; a design magazine (Sottsass, 1996, 56).
In 1956 Sottsass decided to leave for New York with his wife and worked in George Nelson’s studio. It was in the same year that he started designing furniture for Polotronova. Two years later, in 1968, he left Polotronova and was appointed design consultant by Olivetti; an Italian industrial group. His designs there were inspired by his love for pop art, Beat and culture. In 1959 he lunched the Elea 9003. In 1961 Sottsass was sent to the United States of America by Roberto Olivetti in order to cure an unclear illness that he had been infected by while traveling to India for three month. In 1965 he designed two of his most famous designs, the “totem” and the “super box”. In 1970 he won the Compasso d’Oro after introducing the revolutionized typewriter. In 1973 he founded the Global Tools design school along with two other investors. In 1987 Sottsass was working on Studio Alchymia’s exhibition along with a group of other designers. In 1980, he left to open his own movement called Memphis which made him famous. In 1981 Sottsass founded the Sottsass Associati. In 1985 after he had already left the Memphis group, he returned to architecture while working in Sottsass Associati and created the Malpensa airport in France in 2000. Many of his works were and are presented in museums around the world. In 2007 Sottsass had passed away.
Sottsass had designed objects which could make a statement in a room. By using bold colors and a mastery of shapes he transferred a subliminal message, which he had hoped would be strong enough to leave an impression, into evoked emotions. It is hard to say that Sottsass’s designs were bad largely due to the fact that he is greatly appreciated by so many and viewed more in regards to his goals and his designs which were very successful. Yet his ambitions and rules did not correspond to many of those society had set; he bent the norm a little too much. Sottsass expressed his theories about design—which were partially based on previous eras— and his view of the world in his work. The problem was that he used the fore ground instead of the back ground in his work. He took functionality, beauty, adaptation to space, and other key elements to the back ground instead (Sottsass, 1996, 72).
Lines, planes and dots that cross each other, sharp edges, very abstract design is good for experimenting. His work consisted more of studies than appealing features and he was not afraid to admit it. Sottsass created simplistic designs; he used basic shapes –circle, triangle, and rectangle—to represent most of his creations. He chose to pay more attention to ornamental/conceptual aspects of design than functionality and ease of operation. A good example would be his Basilico teapot which was very hard to operate, since it did not offer a good, comfortable grip. It also seemed heavy since it was made of ceramic.
Besides Sottsass’s preference to beauty over function, his designs such as those of vases, lamps and table, did not look like their purpose. This is usually considered as a valuable quality since it attracts interaction with consumers and a deeper analysis of the product. Yet, I believe there is a limit for abstraction; some objects are designed to serve a specific task and along the years prove to be very successful at it, therefore there is no need to change its basic concepts. Objects don’t have to look alike or serve the same purpose but if taken out of contact, it is prudent that a consumer can be able to understand how to operate the object. With Sottsass’s design it is sometimes unclear why he chooses to do things the way he does and how we as consumers are expected to use it when it is designed the way it is instead of the way we are used to seeing it. Rather than designing to serve a function he is describing a function through his exterior design. When designing the Elea 9003 he thought about a design that would represent the only thing he could see it as-a piece that has a specific technical function and he designed its exterior to look like its purpose (Sottsass, 1996, 84).
“I design things for life state.”(Sottsass). Sottsass did not believe in the future, past, or present. He did not believe in following a style, so he created one that incorporated ideas from previous periods but was unlike anything before. But if that is so, than how are people expected to mix and bland his designs which don’t belong into their lives? Sottsass’s designs were out of the ordinary. Pieces that our eyes are not trained to see. This is good but only to some extent. Sottsass design is so bold and far from being familiar, comforting, or transmitting a sense of stability or calmness that it is out of the ordinary in a disappointing way, a way that can be appreciated, but only in certain locations, one that limits the observer.
Sottsass liked to explore and combine materials. The colors in his work appear very boldly making one feel as if Ettore did not see the lines as being capable of telling a story single-handedly. Thus he created a mood using colors to make sure he got the attention he believed his design deserved. He used colors and shapes to show emotions however, did not care about appeal, theory came first to him. He was “not the least bit interested in making elegant or graceful objects, and even less so in designing silent things that leave the viewer secure in his psychic or cultural status quo.” (Sottsass). Most people are not aware of his theories when they purchase his designs. He writes in a language that consumers cannot read so then, one may ask, what value does it have until someone who speaks the same language can translate? Since Sottsass usually uses many colors I wonder what clear glass design means, is it meaningless or does he not see the transparent parts as a key element that should do nothing else other than serve a functional purpose?
Many of Sottsass works portray composition of never ending lines, very busy dynamic work that confuses the eye. From one point of view his design is very useful in terms of shapes, yet his work consists of many unnecessary lines that serve design purposes yet conflict with function. Even though he took stack ability into account in some of his designs, others are bulky, they don’t fit any particular pattern or adopt to a particular space. Even though he used the most basic forms, he combines many materials and colors in his design and not always in a tasteful manner. His designs are more ornamental than functional.
The Carlton bookshelf has a symmetrical structure yet it is not visible at fist glance due to the extensive amount of caustic lines involved. Ronald T. Labaco mentions that Ettore did not plan his products with a specific “audience of consumers in mind”. And Carlton proves it, this is a product consumed by adults for adults yet it had characteristics of children’s play room furniture. It looks as if Sottsass was trying to convey a message through his representation of a stick figure on top of a child’s desk but one cannot be sure what it is exactly only by looking at the bookshelves. This piece is defiantly one that takes over its surrounding, it become a center piece of a room and gives no opportunity for other pieces in the same room to get attention. Most of the lines, except for the horizontal ones, have positive angles and look like never ending lines that expend to space. The rectangle at the top, that is the head, helps create a feeling of boundaries even though the piece has a “wild” layout. There is wasted space both in the piece itself, which is limiting some functional space and the room which the bookshelf is placed in, since it does not follow the line of any of the walls in any standard room (Sottsass, 1996, 87).
Finally, if Sottsass would have taken functionalism, adoption to space, and use of color in order to create calm, comforting settings instead of transmitting his emotions, and directions of lines into account, his design could have fitted more as a good, ideal design. Nevertheless, making these changes would have meant giving up all of what design meant to Sottsass, an impossible thing.
Sottsass Ettore. Ettore Sottsass: Ceramics. London, Chronicle Books, 1996, pp.56, 72, 84, 87