Design | Post Ettore Sottsass Modernism

Carlton room divider, 1981
Wood, plastic laminate.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
John C Waddell Collection,
Gift of John C Waddell, 1997

Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical
The Met Breuer
21 July > 8 October 2017

I remember cursing postmodernism in the mid-1990s. Having arrived jet-lagged at the Philippe Starck-designed Royalton hotel in New York, I tripped over the rear leg of the designer’s ‘iconic’ Costes armchair (1984) – which might look elegant, but sticks out way too far – and ended up in a heap on the floor.

Like the art deco architecture and design it often resembled, early postmodernism was showy – in many instances, tacky – and unfit for purpose. What made things worse was that, once it really started to roll in the early 1980s and the requirement for objects and buildings to function was sidelined, postmodernism became a bandwagon that was easy to leap on to. Many did just that, in the process, transforming what had begun a couple of decades earlier as a radical philosophical concept in the minds of respected architecture and design theorists into a widespread and rather frivolous fad. Suddenly, there was a lot of money around and people couldn’t wait to find things to spend it on. Bored with what was currently on offer, desperate to find something exciting, new and different, they lapped it up in whatever form it was presented to them.

By the 1960s, Ettore Sottsass (1917 > 2007) was already bored by the functional. ‘When I was young, all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism. It’s not enough’ he was heard to complain. His stated aim for the Valentine portable typewriter (1969), one of his most successful achievements for Olivetti, was to create an object that could ‘influence not only physical conditions but also emotions, [that could] touch the nerves, the blood, the muscles, the eyes and the moods of people.’ Born in Austria, educated in Italy, he established his first studio in Milan in 1947. Best known for his work with Olivetti, where for many years he was the company’s design consultant, and for the design collective Memphis, founded in 1981, Sottsass’s work would gradually evolve from modernism into postmodernism. The shift was triggered by the influences he gathered through a trip to the United States, where he worked for a month at the designer George Nelson’s office, and another to India in 1961, after which he began to create objects imbued with symbolism, emotional appeal, and global and traditional references.

Murmansk Fruit Dish, 1982
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Gift of Ronald S Kane, 1992,
Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Meanwhile, in 1966, the American architect Robert Venturi, who wittily countered Mies van der Rohe’s ‘less is more’ axiom with his own ‘less is a bore’, published his influential book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. It called for the return of decoration, symbolism, colour, pattern and references to historic structures in new buildings. As a result, over the course of the next couple of decades, pointed skyscrapers with concrete walls that looked as if they were carved from stone began to pop up in American cities. Because they constituted a reaction to the uncompromisingly modern, glass-and-steel structures that had been built following World War II, they were dubbed ‘postmodern’.

When Memphis made its controversial debut at the 1981 Salone del Mobile, a lot of people who had never appeared to have any interest in design, suddenly became very animated and excited; it was as if they’d been at a rather dull party and had been presented with a new and exotic cocktail. Veneered in colourful and patterned plastic laminates, like those used in 1950s American diners, Memphis design was, however, constructed using the finest cabinetmaking techniques marketed and priced beyond the reach of average consumers, it contributed to the blurring of the art and design markets and the rise of ‘collectible design’. Karl Lagerfeld, an ardent devotee of art deco in the 1970s, fell in love with it. Amassing an important collection of Memphis pieces – with help from interior designer Andrée Putman – he famously furnished an entire apartment in Monaco with them in 1983, only to sell off every item at Sotheby’s only eight years later.

Omaggio 3, 2007
Corian and wood.
Courtesy Gallery Mourmans

In retrospect, it would seem, postmodernism turned out to be a fad with substance. The work of its founders, including Sottsass and Venturi, who recognised the need for applying a broader range of thought processes to design and architecture, were important catalysts that provoked profound changes in the mindsets of architects and designers. Postmodernist thinking stimulated the impetus behind the surge of diverse creativity and innovation on which the modern world depends, and indeed, functions.

In its forthcoming exhibition, Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical, The Met Breuer attempts to re-evaluate Sottsass’s exceptionally productive career that spanned more than six decades, via a presentation of his key works in a wide range of media. Including architectural drawings, interiors, furniture, machines, ceramics, glass, jewellery, textiles, painting, and photography, it will offer new insights into his designs. Placing him within a broader design discourse, Sottsass’s work will be juxtaposed against ancient and contemporaneous objects that influenced his practice.

All objects © Ettore Sottsass, images courtesy The Met Breuer

Tell us what you think
The Blog is about art, architecture, books, design, gardens and anything else that currently interests us that we think might interest you

The Blog’s publishers insist that all images supplied for publication in our posts are cleared for that use before being made available to us. Whether pictures are sent to us as email attachments or made available as downloadable files, any responsibility for fees that may, under any circumstances whatsoever, fall due, must be borne by the source supplier

Share this post
Facebook Twitter Linkedin

Leave a Reply