by Jerry ElengicalMay 24, 2022
2017 was the year in which the whole world celebrated the creativity of Ettore Sottsass (Innsbruck, September 14, 1917 – Milan, December 31, 2007). Ten years after his death and 100 years after his birth, we saw several events all around the world – exhibitions, books, conferences, reissues, tributes – celebrating his thought, work, character, person and legacy. The most popular format was the large retrospective exhibition: large containers that claimed to tell the many faces of the designer and the widest possible audience. This kind of encyclopaedic narrative is certainly useful to have a summary knowledge of the author, but hardly able to reveal his soul.
In 2022, five years after the year of forced (but due) celebrations, interest in Ettore Sottsass is more alive than ever. An immersive installation, a photography exhibition and a publication tell of small parts of his work, but in an accomplished (or deliberately unfinished) way: the best approach to recount the prolific and histrionic character of the Gruppo Memphis founder.
The book Sottsass. Poltronova 1958-1974
The book Sottsass. Poltronova 1958-1974 (2022), edited by design consultant Ivan Mettion and published by Skira, focuses on the collaboration between the designer and the iconic Italian company founded in 1957 by entrepreneur and designer Sergio Camilli. From this particular encounter we can understand many aspects of Sottsass's character: his ease in drawing and prolificacy, his passion for experimentation against the imposed need to follow the market, his precision in giving shape to ironic, playful, free ideas.
“This book focuses on the 1960s and 1970s as these years are, in my opinion, a formative period in Ettore Sottsass’s work. During this time of complete freedom, amid a context of social and political unrest, he established the theoretical and aesthetic fundamentals of his work. His formal vocabulary gradually came together through many experiments with diverse materials including ceramics, metal, wood, and thermoplastics,” writes Metton in the book’s introduction.
The book excellently transposes the relationship between Sottsass and Poltronova. After a first introductory part, in which the context in which it began is recounted through a series of texts, we find a fundamental chapter, entitled Shapes, materials, colours, summarising the entire collaboration, which lasted from 1958 to 1974, with its three themes. Particularly illuminating are the diagrams, which illustrate the designer’s combinatorial approach, which shaped a recognisable and later became iconic style.
Once you have mastered the compositional method, you can choose to leaf through the 247 pages of the book quickly, noting how the succession of images gives a coherent and recognisable overall image, or you can decide to linger on the designs, which are illustrated with texts, photographs and drawings.
The exhibition Ettore Sottsass. Foto dal Finestrino
A Leica M6 as a means of communication, a window as an imaginary place from which to film the world and a careful search for words to accompany the shots. In this way, with his postcards, Ettore Sottsass contributed to 26 issues of Domus between 2004 and 2006 to which the editor of the time, Stefano Boeri, had invited him. The master decided to narrate the world around him through images that captured an undergrowth of ideas and inscrutable details: few like him would be able to translate those visions into reflections.
In 2009, the series of photographs and texts was collected in a pocket-sized volume published by Adelphi publishing house, while until June 22, 2022, it is on display at the Triennale Museum in Milan, with a linear succession of frames that bring together Sottsass's far-from-linear gaze and thought.
Making this latest format transformation possible is Boeri himself, who is now President of Triennale Milano: “When I became the editor-in-chief of Domus in 2004, I asked Ettore Sottsass to write an editorial for each issue of the magazine expressing his world-view. Ettore chose to start by sending us some postcards or, as he liked to call them, ‘photos from a window’: full-page pictures with a short text he had typed on his Olivetti Valentine. Ettore would pick these fragments of the world and thoughts from his vast archive of places that he and Barbara Radice had visited around the globe. The 26 snapshots of visual thoughts that we are now newly presenting at the Triennale make up a remarkable atlas of correspondences and coincidences between places, feelings experienced, and thoughts. They are like threads running between the world of inhabited places and the inner world of a great, incomparable artist.”
The immersive installation Casa Lana
“I was left with this idea: the idea that one can identify existence or perhaps even just endure it by spending time imagining an artificial environment. Imagining it with everything that can help me and others to experience it, to find themselves, to sketch themselves, to show themselves to the world and then more or less, as far as one can, to be happy. There is someone who draws the place to wait and someone who draws a glass to let people know what wine is. I always thought that maybe I could try to draw places where I could find some strength to wait or maybe I could also draw a very red box that I would never open so as not to let the enigma out.”
With these words by Ettore Sottsass, Barbara Radice, the designer’s wife, inaugurated the reconstruction and permanent installation of a private residence interior, Casa Lana, within the spaces of Triennale Milano. The project is a house within a house, a room within a room. Thanks to Casa Lana – which was literally disassembled and reassembled in the museum spaces – it is possible to experience a work by Sottsass that was relegated to the private dimension for so many years. One is immersed in a magical and colourful atmosphere that represents the soul of Sottsass.
Perhaps this is the best way to relate to the designer’s work: through perception and intuition, imagination and fantasy.