Ettore Sottsass

ETTORE SOTTSASS  Italian, 1917-2007

It would not be an exaggeration to call Ettore Sottsass the godfather of Italian design. His designs are smart, elegant, always surprising and idiosyncratic, all hallmarks of truly Italian design.

Although born in Austria, Italy became the adopted home for Sottsass and his father, a well-respected architect of the rationalist movement (Sottsass always referred to himself as Ettore Sottsass, Jr., in deference to his father). After architecture school in Milan, Sottsass worked at the office of George Nelson in New York before returning to Italy as a design consultant to the Olivetti company. This appointment produced numerous designs for adding machines, computers, and furniture, culminating with the Olivetti Valentine typewriter. A cherry-red portable plastic typewriter, it broke away from the office equipment stable. Meant for use in any place but the office, the Valentine supremely embodied Sottsass' constant challenge to the predictable everyday object.

By the 60s, Sottsass moved away from the pure functionalism of his school days and began to experiment with designs that had explicit social and historical dimensions. Sottsass became an acknowledged leader in the Anti-Design movement, which opposed the "correct" and "good taste" of functionalism. In 1981, Sottsass led a group of designers who were interested in an alternative to the coolly functional designs of the period, exemplified by the matte black electronic box.

Memphis, as the group called themselves, exploded riotously with colours and materials the design world had not seen before. Under the aegis of Sottsass, a design movement was born. Memphis' colourful, multifunctional, and ambiguous pieces were designed by a stable of talented designers that included Michele de Lucchi, Andrea Branzi, Michael Graves, and Sottsass himself. These designs broke with conventional forms and poked fun at the seriousness of functional designs, using neon, exotic veneers, and wildly patterned plastic laminates that became the group's signature look.