Ettore Sottsass Jnr.
Ettore Sottsass Jnr. born Innsbruck, Austria 1917. Following an architectural education in Turin in the 1930’s and upon the outbreak of war in Europe Sottsass was drafted into the Italian army but was to spend the majority of the second world war in a Yugoslavian concentration camp.
When the guns finally fell silent he pressed on with his architectural plans and wasted no time starting his own practice in Milan. Sottsass’ work reached a global audience in the late 1950’s when he was appointed consultant designer for Olivetti. It also was during this time that he first worked with a young upstart from Leeds, George Sowden, whose paths would cross many times over the years. His output at Olivetti was at the very cutting edge of electrical design as the new wave of computers, portable calculators and office furniture entered the workplace. He is however best remembered for designing the iconic Valentine portable typewriter which became an accessory to be carried by the rich, the famous and the downright fashionable. One memorable festive advert had the unparalleled slogan ‘Buy A Valentine For Christmas”.
In the 1960’s Sottsass began to forge a path against what he saw as design for designs sake. He spent a year in New York working at the studio of George Nelson where his exposure to the burgeoning Pop Art scene influenced his later furniture collection for Poltranova. His ‘anti-design’ sentiment was further galvanised by his association with Studio Alchima in the 1970’s and by 1980 Sottsass had become a de facto talisman culminating in the creation of the Memphis Design Group.
The Memphis story seems too improbable to be true. Sottsass, along with a number of like minded designers / revolutionaries including, but not exclusively, George Sowden, Michael Graves, Natalie du Pasquier, Matteo Thun, Macro Zanini and Peter Shire disappeared into the Italian hills and returned with a collection of the most unusual, jarring and ultimately uncommercial furniture, glassware, textiles and lighting imaginable. This collection was presented at the 1981 Milan furniture fair situated amongst a sea of homogenous chrome, black and white products and caused a sensation, perfectly highlighting, as intended, just how bland design had become. The mix of styles from ancient Greek art to the brash shapes and colours of the 1950’s was not to everyones taste and ultimately very few pieces were produced. This has only fuelled the niche interest in the Memphis anti-design movement over the years and it is easy to forget today just how influential this small and ultimately doomed collection was.
Through his career Sottsass has designed for everyone from Artemide to Swid Powel, Alessi to Zanotta. However his work for Bitossi (try and spot his vases in the backgrounds of adverts, film and photo shoots) and Acme Studios are closest to our hearts (and indeed the founders of Acme who commission him to build their house, a time lapse video of which can be seen here).
Sottsass died in 2007 shortly after completing a very special project for Acme, the Phase 3 limited edition pen.