Head of Department, Otto Billström, delves into the life and work of renowned Italian architect, Ettore Sottsass. Who has a selection of lots exhibited in our 31 October Design sale.
11 October 2023
Often celebrated for his involvement in the prolific Memphis Group, Ettore Sottsass’ contributions to design history tends to be thought of as quirky pieces of furniture, manifesting in bold and thought-provoking shapes exploring the relationship between form and function. He always regarded the importance of iconographic or historic reference, that all design must stem from somewhere, however, he also argued the necessity for a spiritual and personal aspect in the creation of design, a philosophy which would help lay the foundation for the Post Modernist movement.
Born in Insbruck in 1917, Sottsass moved to Milan at a very young age, eventually following in the footsteps of his father, training as an architect at the Polytechnic University of Turin, graduating in 1939. Throughout World War II Sottsass served in the Italian army, returning to Milan after its end where he set up his architectural and design practice. Sottsass’ interest transcended mere architecture, and he worked diligently across a variety of media, including ceramics, furniture, sculpture and photography, facets which he would distil into the Memphis movement over three decades on. Sottsass’ work was highly based around functionalism, something which in 1956 attracted the attention of Adriano Olivetti who hired Sottsass as a consultant. Their relationship would see the conception of some of Sottsass’ most iconic work, ranging from the Valentino V typewriter to the Elea 9003 computer which would secure him the 1959 Compasso D’Oro.
The confines of industrial design and the functionalist vogue of the late 1950s had, however, started to take its toll on Ettore, who was seeking a deeper, personal, meaning behind his work. He would famously later state that when he was young “all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism”. He dismissed it as an insufficient drive behind his work, instead seeking for Design to be spiritual and sensual in an increasingly computerised world – a world which he was partially responsible for.
*Ettore Sottsass (Italian, 1917-2007) c.1969, a lidded stoneware box, model Y/25, from the 'Yantra' series, of stepped form, decorated in a purple glaze, signed, 13cm wide,15cm deep, 21cm high (£2,000-4,000)
Throughout the 1960s, whilst continuing his work for Olivetti, Sottsass travelled extensively, most notably to New York and India, places which exposed him to new schools of philosophy. As a result, Sottsass diverted from the functionalist designs which he pioneered in the 1950s, instead choosing to incorporate philosophy, fashion, and religion. Retaining the simplistic shapes, Sottsass instead chose to look at the design process as meditation, with one of the emerging series being the 'Yantra di Terracotta'. The word ‘Yantra’ in Hindi means ‘to control’, referring to cosmic energies harnessed through repetition or mantras.
Materialising in form, Sottsass applied this idea to a series of twenty-eight ceramics objects, all based around repetition and basic shapes. The range, whilst functional in some degree, was meant as small monuments or totems, fulfilling Sottsass’ yearning for the spiritual place within Design.
*Ettore Sottsass (Italian, 1917-2007), c.1969, a stoneware sculpture, model Y/36, from the 'Yantra' series, of pointed form, with a circular perforation to one side, decorated in a golden glaze, signed, 13cm wide, 15cm deep, 21cm high (£2,000-4,000)
The Yantra series, along with the contemporary ‘Superbox’ series, was Sottsass first foray into the spiritual realm of Design, and helped blaze the trail for the Postmodernist path that would eventually crystalise into the Memphis Group in the beginning of the 1980s. Embracing colour and shape, humour and philosophy the group came to encompass designers from across the globe, rallying under the banner of Sottsass until their dissolution in 1987. Materialising in a broad range of media, form fabric to furniture, their production remains as divisive today as it did over forty years ago. Functionalism was never a tenet of the group’s philosophy, often seeing pieces taking on asymmetrical and unconventional shape. Despite this, the legacy of the group remains enshrined in 20th century design history, and members of the group have since come to influence everything from fashion to contemporary design, and original pieces fetching high prices at auction with collectors paying a premium for premium pieces.
*Ettore Sottsass (Italian, 1917-2007) c.1969, a stoneware sculpture, model Y/36, from the 'Yantra' series, of pointed form, with a circular perforation to one side, decorated in a golden glaze, signed, 13cm wide,15cm deep, 21cm high (£2,000-4,000)
Sottsass was seventy when Memphis dissolved, yet he went on to design for another twenty years until his death in 2007, with work undertaken across the world.
Ettore Sottsass is one of the most extraordinary lives in 20th century Design history, laying the foundation of Postmodernism, transcending design from the rigid and rational functionalism of Bauhaus. Sottsass instead chose to look at design as a personal expression of creativity, philosophy, and faith. In doing so, he laid the foundation of one of the most divisive Design movements which remains as controversial as it did forty years ago, inviting discourse about form and function, colour and shape, and the spiritual aspects of design.
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