Last year, around early summer I started feeling the urge of interviewing Ettore Sottsass. I didnt know why but it became a mission. I had come across with his Carlton room divider burned out and varnished with epoxy as a part of a project of Maarten Baas, a young dutch designer I like a lot, and I realized that the essence of this colourful and ironic Italian designer with a strange name had hipnotised me.
I didnt know yet that 2007 would see a huge Sottsass revival –not least because next September he will turn 90 years-old, but also because the Design Museum of London launches a big retrospective of his work just tomorrow. I guess sometimes these things are in the air and you just need to grasp them. I started making contacts aroud July and, finally, last October I took a plane to Milano to interview him at his place. There I was, facing, without any doubt, the most exciting interview I would make for quite some time.
I had researched and prepared the interview thoroughly, for at least a couple of months. But the night before, in a cheap Milano hotel, I could barely sleep. I was going to meet one the stars of Italian counter-design, the father of Memphis, the most exciting thing that happened in the world of Design during the 80’s and which Im not even sure if it has been overcome yet.
Left: Grey Furniture table and chairs, for Poltronova (1970). Right: Asteroid mirror (1969).
On the taxi, trying to get as closer as possible to the Doumo neighbourhood, where he lives, I calmed down a bit chatting with the photographer. On arriving to his flat we were surprised by how modest and small it was. Nothing fancy, nothing “too designed”, not even if in his extravagant anti-bourgeois style. The only concessions to his own oeuvre were some pieces of furniture, like a small side-table and a chest of drawers, and some of the miniature reproduction of his most famous designs, that you can buy at the bookstore of Triennale. I also glimpsed some vintage pictures and a portrait with his wife Barbara Radice taken by Helmut Newton, a dear friend of the couple. The walls were covered with rows of shelves full of books and there were quite a few of his drawings of playful interiors and Buddhist motives, the religion that changed his life when he travelled to India in the 60’s with his first wife, Fernanda Pivano. Not much more. A humble flat, the shelter of one the most famous designers in History.
Ettore Sottsass was sitting in the living room, helping an assistant from his studio with some kind of strange sculpture whilst listening to the radio. He was wearing slippers, not at all bothered to dress up for a photo session for a well-known magazine. He was just like in the all the pics I had seen before, with puppy eyes and a long and thing plait of white hair that has become his trademark. At 89, his body was tired and he didn’t want to move a lot, complaining about his back, but he oozed sweetness and intelligence.
Now it is quite common to talk about “emotional design”, an approach you started in the late 50’s and that in your case it not only refers to being ‘user friendly’ –like in your work for Olivetti– but also because you projected own feelings and experiences in your objects.
Well, I always call it sensorial design, because it’s your senses that allow you to explore and understand an object. Your eyes, your fingers, even your nose. That’s why the materials are so important. Objects can change your daily life, make it exciting, happier and more poetic.
These days some of the best galleries from all over the world have specialised in selling very limited editions of pieces of furniture by figures like you, Prouvé, Nelson, Superstudio, Wegner and all the rest of great designers. Do you think that design and art should blend or that they should belong to different categories with different functions?
Yes, that is happening, but I don’t think it’s a problem and that art and design are no longer separated fields. The key is making a difference between designers and industrial designers. Nowadays, I’m NOT an industrial designer. I have been one, a for a long time, like during all those years that I worked for Olivetti, but eventually I have found my space in the world of the galleries because I no loger find companies that allow me to do what I want and whose principles I respect. Right now my pieces are produced exclusively for two galleries: Ernest Mourmans in Belgium and Bischofberger in Switzerland.
You started your career as an architect, working first with your dad and then alone before quitting to become a designer. You came back to architecture in the 80’s, when you felt you “were ready”. Why were you ready at that point?
I studied architecture at the Torino Polytechnic and soon was helping my father in his studio, but it all crashed down with the Second World War. I went to the front and was made a prisoner and sent to Yugoslavia, where I was held in a prisoner camp during what were the most boring years of my life. After the war, there wasn’t much money for architecture, so design was the perfect way out and, in the end, took most of my working life. I came back to architecture in my late 70’s and formed Sottsass Associati. Thats when I felt ready to face the discipline. You have to be calm and sensitive to do that job.
Van Impe House. St. Lievens Houtem, Belgium. Sottsass Associati (1996-98).
Olivetti was the one brand that made you famous for the first time. How did an architect and painter ended up with that job?
Olivetti was an industrial design experience like I couldn’t have dreamed to have. I became close friends with the son of Adriano Olivetti, Roberto, who was the president of the electronic department that they started in 1959. We used to go out and have dinner and discuss for hours and hours about what could be done to make products that were nice and human for the user. Around that time computers were something very new and were as big as a whole room, so we wanted to design tools that didn’t scare or bore the workers. I didn’t have a clue of that technological world that was beginning, but I was designing what I would like to use if I had to. I always design for myself, what I would like or need.
Your career was built in position of pushing the line, proposing something new and bold, challenging the people and the industry. It was a very political attitude, aligned with your own values. These days the design world in general seem a bit bland, very focused on aesthetic proposals but meaningless. Your approach, although very different in the results, seems more connected with contemporary Dutch design, or with the work of some Brits.
In Olivetti, for instance, we spoke of concepts, about the future, about what we wanted to make out of it. Now it would be impossible to speak on that terms because now all the conversations are focused on sales, targets and marketing. That’s why I’m not interested anymore in being part of the industry. The designers seem anesthetized by the industry, by the weight of being part of it. That’s why maybe there are less challenging and surprising ideas. The aggressiveness of this industry is killing the creativity. If you open a magazine or go to a furniture fair, you will see 200 sofas and chairs that look the same. It seems that people these days are obsessed with designing chairs. Its becoming quite boring.
Left: Summa 19 calculator, Olivetti (1970). Right: Malabar room divider, Memphis (1982).
It is often said, because of your bold use of materials, symbols and colours, that you were one of the fathers of Postmodern design. Would you say you connected with the Postmodernism flow that was starting in the 60’s?
No, not at all. Postmodernist proposed a return to classic values. They were not Modern but conservative. I have always felt more identified with Pop, with Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas, which means a Pop point of view and comes from the United States. I wanted to overcome the rigidity of Modernism, but in a different way.
You have said you started as a functionalist, maybe influenced by your father, but that at an early point you changed to another direction. What made you change?
I didn’t change, it was my idea of function that changed. Functionalists were worried basically by ergonomics but I realized there were another concepts in daily life that were equally important, maybe in subtle but just as important ways. Fulfilling emotional, sensorial, spiritual and even erotic functions. And that was the path I started to work in.
So you started a path from the margins, not really caring about the system and its “laws”. But nevertheless you were accepted and adored by the industry from the moment you started to work in Olivetti. Later, with an even more rebellious production, like your ceramic or glass, or your furniture for Poltronova and Memphis, which were not really suitable for the mass taste, you were still recognised and celebrated. Were you surprised when you were hailed by the same system you were trying to upgrade? Was success something you expected?
Well, I don’t consider that I have been commercially successful, but I was in the world of critics. I did expect some success, yes, it didn’t surprise me a lot. But it was never a motivation or goal. I just wanted to do my stuff. At the “vernissage” of the first Memphis exhibition, here in Milano at 1981, the street was packed with people that wanted to take a look at it, and it was such a great feeling. But I think I am more motivated by other kind of things. For example, the other day the 5 year-old nephew of a friend saw one of my drawings and got fascinated and that made me feel a lot better (laughs). It was the biggest compliment ever.
Laminated silk-screens with Bacterio (left) and Spugnato (right) patterns, ABET (1978).
Tell me about the colour. If there is something unique in your work is the fearless use of colour. You even wrote than colour should dictate structure and not in reverse (Struttura e Colore, 1954), which contradicts the very history of architecture. Is this something you really think or just a contoversial statement? Why do you think colour is so unpopular?
Colour it is fundamental to me, and my palette is so very bright. Some people say they are primary colours, but I call them “gas station colours”. They are the colours I used when I was a kid and I was learning to draw, strong and pure. Why do I use them? Because they mean freedom and the rejection of prejudices. It’s a shame, but yes, colour is still something unpopular. The predominant shades are white, black, beige… I think the reason is that it is just easier. If you go all dressed in black is very easy. But if you start mixing colours it means an extra effort to combine them. Its laborious and risky. That scares people and it’s a real shame. Bright colours are for a happy and fearless society.
Is being polemic, rebelling against the establishment, something you looked for? Are you a designer or a anti-designer? You challenged the consumer, a bit “guerrilla style”, but from within the system, using its own tools. Is that the best counter-desing, breaking the systme from inside?
No, it was never my intention to be a counter-designer or to rebel against the system. I was just a bit critical, I wanted to do something different, to propose other possibilities and ways of working on things that made me happy at the same time. My proposal was never charged with aggressiveness, at least as far as a I see it. If people took it like something shocking or disturbing, it’s something I can’t change, but it was never my intention.
What do you think of the terms “good/bad taste”? Do you find it bourgeois?
To me it’s a matter of culture and ignorance. Every society has its own aesthetic code, even each person has one. Sometimes you don’t like something just because you don’t understand it, you don’t understand the concept behind it. But I don’t use good or bad taste because I find them meaningless. I prefer using interesting or not interesting.
If something as powerful as Memphis happened now, Ikea would probably take less than three months to launch super cheap version collection of it. Would that make you happy or upset?
Its is possible, yes. But there is something that will never be repeated, and even less in a industrial production, and it is the fact that Memphis was a project about ideas. Revolutionary ideas based on contradictions, like mixing poor materials (laminated plastic) with rich materials (wood). I always thought that using two different languages produces a new life. Or changing the symmetry axis, like the Carlton shelf. Memphis was a conceptual project made by a group of friends, architects, designers and artists (Andrea Brazi, Michele de Lucchi, Matteo Thun, Nathalie de Pasquier…). We just made the prototypes for that exhibition. We didn’t expect that reception in the first place and I decided to leave it in 1985, when it had all gotten too exposed and had lost its sense.
Right: Set for a Poltronova exhibtion (1965). Carlton room divider, Memphis (1981).
You are mentioned as an icon for many designers these days. But who is your icon?
I have always admired George Nelson, for whom I worked briefly in 1956 on my first trip to the United Stated. I also like Mies, Le Corbusier, Barragán, Aldo Rossi…
Both your furniture and your architecture stand on podiums, which is something very distinctive of your work. Why this?
Because a podium calls your attention and highlights the object. It becomes like a little monument, doesn’t it?
Do you like seeing your pieces used? Say you see your Carlton shelf full of books and stuff. Would you prefer it to be empty, displayed like a piece of art?
Used, always used. They have a function. I detest being called and “artist”. Im not an artist. I am an architect and a designer.
You have said that your objects are very architectural but I also think that your architecture resembles those objects sometimes. You also use the classic roof and the round door in all your houses. Do you believe in the power of the symbols of the traditional shelter, a home that looks like home?
Objects have to be compact, but you live in your house for hours and hours, so housing has to be more sophisticated. You can’t think of a house just as a façade but as interior spaces and how they relate to each other. Houses are not architecture, they are more like a present that the architect makes to a friend. Right now, I don’t know who to give one to. There are such few people who deserve it…
You also tend to employ vernacular materials as to blend the building with the landscape. Are you against the architecture that disturbs the context?
No, I think that a piece of good architecture stands alone in any context. It looks good anywhere you build it. I don’t think you have to design to match the landscape.
You build private architecture, mostly houses. Is that in order to avoid working with institutions?
It is. I don’t copulate very well with politics and institutions. I design houses for my friends or for people that quickly become my friends. People that I want to work with. When you work for an institution it all becomes a big mess.
Jasmine Hill house, Singapore. Sottsass Associati (1996-2000).
Doing research for this interview I read a million definitions of your persona, but I would like to know how you would describe yourself.
You never know who you really are, so any definition I might give you might be wrong. Im an architect and a designer but I’m not any guru. I’ve had a very full life in which I have done things right and thing wrong. I have worked a lot, I have broken hearts and had mine broken. I have done many things wrong, but I have been always faithful to my point of view. That’s all I can say.
You have been a celebrated designer, an original architect, you have written essays, articles and poems. You have painted and sculpted, made glass and ceramics, and you’ve even had your pictures (photography being another of your passions) published regularly in books and magazines… Do you still have something left to do?
I’m a very curious person, that is why I do all these things. And there always be more things to do while you are alive. But I will tell you what Im not interested in doing: building a skyscraper. Im not interested at all in those constructions (laughs).
Left: Poster for the Sottsass retrospective at the Design Museum. Right: Glass sculpture.
The Design Museum of London hosts a big exhibition on Ettore Sottsass :”Work in progress”. From March 29th to June 10th.
Bibliography: “Ettore Sottsass, Architect and Designer” by Ronald T. Labaco. LACMA and Merrell Publishers (2006). “Maestri del Design”, edited by Bruno Mondadori.