Italian design rebel
Ettore Sottsass is a huge name in Italian design. Austrian by birth, and architect and designer by trade, his influence has had a lasting impact. Remember the chunky, colorful graphics, clothing and Day-Glo design that typifies the late 1980s and early 1990s? That’s the influence of Sottsass.
The Austrian-born Italian enjoyed a seven-decade-long career and is now regarded as one of the most influential figures in the postmodernist movement. He worked across almost every artistic discipline possible, including glass and ceramics. He made electronic products for Olivetti in the 1950s, consulting on a range of highly technical - and utterly gorgeous - computers and typewriters. And in 1980, he founded the famous Memphis Group - a collective of Italian designers and architects who embraced his philosophies of color and human-centered design.
The Memphis Group is famed for its innovative approach to using materials and methods that until the 1980s were unheard of. The collective began in Sottsass’s tiny Milan apartment in December of 1980. Inspired by the Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” as well as the modern Tennessee city and the ancient capital of Egypt, the group decided on the name. While Sottsass was undoubtedly the figurehead and founder of the group, he wouldn’t hear of it. As a man who hated the idea of hierarchy and establishment, he had a natural distaste for being told what to do.
Designers in the collective created incredible products and artworks cut into impressively asymmetrical shapes from plastic laminates and fibreglass. It has long been considered one of the biggest cultural impacts of the 80s and saw designers from all over the world turn to plastic laminates for furniture rather than the fine woods in such widespread use at the time. It was a flamboyant period, with those colours and shapes displaying a huge amount of energy that attention from some of the world’s biggest names. David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld were keen collectors of the Memphis Group style, and you can see it infused in both the artists’ work during the late 80s and early 90s.
There are many that see Ettore Sottsass as something of a renaissance figure. The likes of Hans Ulrich Obrist still hold him in the highest of regards. And it’s hard to deny that his influence did indeed change the design world as a whole. What’s even more incredible is that the Memphis Group work he is so famous for only took up a small proportion of his life. Over his entire career, Sottsass only spent six years as part of the collective, leaving completely in 1985.
And what is the legacy of Sottsass today? Memphis pieces are most certainly back in fashion, with angular colours and asymmetry turning up almost everywhere you look. And his design philosophy has had a huge impact - just look at the slick, beautiful designs of almost every single new consumer technology product, with the iPhone and Apple being the most obvious examples. While Sottsass passed away in 2007, that legacy still lives on through Sottsass Associati - a design consultancy firm that is still pushing the ethos and creativity of the great man through young and talented architects.