Who Is Ettore Sottsass and Why Is Everyone Talking About Him: 10 Things You Need To Know About This Master of Postmodern Italian Design

There is a good chance that you have been hearing a lot about Ettore Sottsass – the revolutionary, incendiary and boundlessly creative postmodern Italian designer and architect.  If you are in the design world, you may say that the Sottsass renaissance is already starting to recede – from the flood of interest that came after his death in 2007. For others, you may be curious: who is Ettore Sottsass and why is everyone talking about him? If you don’t know his name, you may be seeing a lot of his designs: on social media, a peculiar lamp on someone’s desk, or an alien-like bookshelf in a friend’s home. What is there to know about Sottsass? The most important thing to know is that he was a complete anomaly – a planet on its own bizarre axis. His limitless exuberance was a breath of fresh air compared to the stodgy, boring design of the 1970s and 80s, and his referential palate extended to American Jazz, beat poetry, and 1940s Indian architecture.  Indeed, Sottsass got his start revolutionizing mundane, everyday utilitarian objects and machinery, from typewriters to corkscrews. However, it was his founding of the Memphis Group and his subsequent furniture designs that earned his praise and vitriol. Love him or hate him, Sottsass’s designs will be forever iconic of his singular vision of reinterpretation and creative anarchy. Here are ten things you need to know about Ettore Sottsass.


1. He Was Imprisoned In A Concentration Camp

After graduating from the Politecnico di Torino with a degree in Architecture in 1939, Sottsass entered the army. After dutifully serving in the Italian military during WWII, he was captured by the Germans and taken to a prisoner of war concentration camp in Yugoslavia. After his liberation at the end of the war, Sottsass went to work for iconic midcentury designer, George Nelson.

2. He Wanted To Be Everything That His Father Was Not

Sottsass was a futurist in that he believed that reinventing the wheel could only come out of  “dismantling the past.” His father was a prominent Italian architect and he moved his family closer to Turin so that his son could study architecture there. However, Sottsass had a distinct aversion to the old school methodologies of design and architecture – the idea that functionalism is the key objective. “It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting."

3. His “Valentine” Portable Typewriter For Olivetti Put Him On The Map

Obsessed with American pop art and having a distaste for the boring sameness of office equipment and machinery, Sottsass went to work for Olivetti. Through this collaboration, the fire engine red “Valentine” typewriter, with its sleek carrying case, was born – it was perhaps the first writing machine that could be described as sexy, sensual and fun. In 1970, actor Richard Burton was photographed at the Heathrow airport with the typewriter in one hand and Elizabeth Taylor in the other.

4. A Trip To India Basically Changes Everything For The Young Sottsass

If you look at some of the homes in Tirunamavalai, which is located in Southern India, you can see some of Sottsass’s strongest references. Many of these homes were built as early as the 1940s – forty years before the founding of Memphis Group. It was in India that Sottsass learned the importance of color. Even the poorest in India lived in brightly colored homes and wore brightly colored clothing. His design sensibilities started to change radically. This is evidenced in his large altar-like ceramic sculptures and his “Superboxes.” It was also in India that Sottsass suffered from nephritis, which led to his chance encounter with the Beat Generation.

5. He Meets Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg And Other Creative Misfits

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and Peter and Julian Orlofsky photographed by Ettore Sottsass, San Francisco, USA 1965

Sottsass was given a grim prognosis – back then a diagnosis of nephritis, which affects the kidneys, was basically a death sentence. Roberto Olivetti, no doubt indebted to Sottsass for his contributions, funded a groundbreaking treatment program for the designer at Stanford University. After a miraculous recovery, Sottsass moves north and meets Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and Neal Cassidy. Back in Italy, Sottsass’s apartment would become a central meeting point for the counter culture. From his walks through Milan with Ginsberg, Sottsass’s designs began to become more and more radical.

6. He Photographed Everything – Literally Everything

Sottsass was also an avid photographer – his camera was a vessel for absorbing the world. He would photograph walls, floors, objects, and people, like Bob Dylan, Chet Baker, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso and many more. For years, he photographed every hotel room in which he had slept with a woman. On a twelve-day trip to South America, he took nearly 2000 photographs.

7. He Created A Vase In The Shape Of A Penis After Falling In Love With A Woman

The pink, phallic Shiva Flower Vase is an iconic example of Sottsass’s design sensibilities. Created for the Barcelona Design Company, the vase has been titillating enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike since its unveiling in 1973. The vase was designed after falling in love with a Catalan woman – its shape, its color and ceramic contours are heavily inspired by that Spanish region.  The Shiva Flower Vase is still in production today.

8. He Created The Memphis Group After A Night Of Listening To Bob Dylan Records

Three decades of exploration, immersion in the counter culture underground, and radicalized thought, coalesced into the founding of the Memphis Group. The name is taken from the Bob Dylan song "Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again.” Dylan’s records were on repeat during that fateful night. Inspirations for Memphis Group designs borrowed from Art Deco and Pop Art movements – with a heavy dose of kitsch. After unveiling the first examples of furniture and objects at the 1981 Salone del Mobile of Milan, the responses varied – from praise to loathing. One review called it "a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price"

9. He Created Sottsass Associati As A Major Global Design Consultancy Firm

In 1980 – in the wake of Memphis Madness - Sottsass created Sottsass Associati, which was to serve as a design consultancy and architecture firm. The purpose for the Associati, which still has an office in Milan and London, was to build architecture on a substantial scale as well as to design for large international industries. His firm designed the home of David M. Kelley – designer of Apple's first computer mouse. 

10. His Most Famous Furniture Pieces and Objects Have Become Iconic

Sottsass’s most famous pieces include a number of functional items for the home – big and small. There is the Carlton room divider, which can also serve as a bookshelf and display case. There is also the Survetta bookcase with its classic graphic black and white pattern printed on laminate. There is also the Tahiti lamp, which looks not unlike an abstract bird of paradise bending down for a sip of water.

Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper and Summer Bowie. You can explore the work of Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis group at an exhibition entitled "What Is It About Memphis" which is on view now at the Modern Archives until July 30th, 2015. You can also learn more about Sottsass by purchasing this book, which was released by Phaidon last year. FOLLOW AUTRE ON INSTAGRAM: @AUTREMAGAZINE