THAT MEMPHIS FEELING

DESIGN: Ettore Sottsass reinvented the typewriter in the Sixties, and turned design values on their head in the Eighties. Even now, as he celebrates his 80th birthday, he is still making his mark. Deyan Sudjic looks at the career of one of the late 20th century's most influential designers also manages tocked look interior of fadin big new version coffee beads and increasingly new yor on recently completed soho just going for a pret am lunch break foure hours you need thats mine exte

With his heavy-lidded eyes and drooping moustache, Ettore Sottsass has the dignified grace of a melancholy bloodhound. For a man who celebrated his 80th birthday this month, he also manages to look impossibly ageless. His Milan office is busy as ever, at work on the interior of the city's new airport at Malpensa, a phone box for Italy's version of BT, and increasingly on architecture. He has recently completed a remarkable black house in Switzerland for the notorious art dealer Bruno Bischofsburger and a golf resort in China, and a collection of grand houses in Singapore is almost done. Working in China suggests that Sottsass's grip on the Zeitgeist remains as firm as ever, although exactly what the Chinese make of his brand of design, layered in irony, is an open question. Can these funny little boxes with their multicoloured porches really be the height of Western luxury?

Sottsass's long career is a continuing reproach to a profession that has concentrated too often on selling over-priced and over-styled luxuries to hypnotised consumers who neither need nor can afford them. In Sottsass's hands it is still possible to believe that design can be a reflection of values that are simpler and more durable than novelty and status. He finds inspiration in dusty Italian street markets as well as exotic ruins. He looks for precedents in everyday kitsch and high culture. And he puts all this together to create objects and spaces that have the unique quality of possessing a sense of memory, even when they are brand new.

Ettore Sottsass Junior, as he still sometimes describes himself, partly with the dead-pan irony that is an essential part of his character and partly in tribute to his long-deceased architect father, is the man who created the Memphis design movement in the early 1980s. Triggered by boredom with the stultifying conventions of glossy good taste and disillusion with the tyranny of functionalism, Memphis represented an important shift in the direction of design. Sottsass had no interest in matt-black boys' toys, or the puritanism of the Bauhaus and its heirs. Instead he wanted to create an approach that was expressive, sculptural and emotional. For him the starting point for designing an item of electronic equipment was equally likely to be the shape of an ancient altar as the engineering of a circuit board. He saw design as part of cultural life in general, not an isolated ghetto for trainspotters. True, the rhetoric did get a trifle overheated at times. Sottsass had a way of indulging in enigmatic monologues about "chocolate and crocodiles" - explaining his work by extemporising on the Bob Dylan dirge that gave the movement its name. But the results - furniture, ceramics, fabrics and glassware, realised by Sottsass himself, with a group of young collaborators - were full of colour and optimism.

Memphis was a revolution. All the vices of design, at least in the eyes of the primmer critics, suddenly became virtues. What is so important about making a fetish out of consistency, when you can mix cheap plastic with costly veneer, said the Memphis boys and girls? Why worry about precious materials and fine workmanship, when you can make a bookshelf that has all the winsome charm of a 1950s milk bar, faced in shamelessly artificial laminate, and finished in eyeball- oscillating nursery colours? Patrons as noticeable as the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and the wealthy photographer Johnny Pigozzi filled their homes with Sottsass's work. The point of Memphis for Sottsass was the belief that design can be about emotions as well as taste, and about symbolism as well as technology. He pulled off the unlikely feat of making a piece of costly furniture genuinely subversive, biting the hand of the affluent Milanese who were the only possible customers for such outlandish objects, gently mocking their aspirations while charging them handsomely for the privilege. But he also recognised the universal urge to invest personality in the objects that shape our daily lives. Memphis came and, by the late Eighties, went, drowned by the tidal wave of publicity it attracted, and the banal imitators. The originals are safe in the world's design museums now.

Sottsass himself is showing no sign of running out of creative energy. His career is measured by a remarkable chain of projects that in successive decades have helped to define the contemporary world, both in the workplace and at home. Trained as an architect, his career took off in the post-war Dolce Vita years when the country dug itself out of chaos to catch up with the richer northern economies. He had an ability to zigzag from fragile ceramics to massive electronic hardware. When he was Olivetti's chief designer back in the late 1950s, Sottsass worked on the first mainframe computers to be conceived not as random accumulations of scientific machinery put together by mad professors with all the visual appeal of the inside of a spin-drier, but as pieces of coherent design. For Sottsass the challenge was to treat a computer as a piece of architecture, not an engineering diagram. He set out to make machines that would be both people-friendly, and have a visual identity that could somehow symbolise just what extraordinary contraptions they were. Sottsass had a knack of making buttons that looked as if they really meant business. Press one and you knew something momentous was likely to happen.

In the 1960s, his work was equally influential. Working with the English designer Perry King, he devised the first typewriter in the world that was designed to look as if it belonged at home rather than in the office. Sottsass's Valentine was a long way from the grey symbol of bureaucratic servitude: portable, and bright red, with vivid orange splashes for the twin ribbon spools. Now that any laptop has the computing power of one of those early giants that Sottsass worked on, it's hard to remember just how revolutionary the Valentine appeared. But Sottsass, who described it at the time as "an object to keep a solitary poet company on a Sunday morning in the country", had turned a piece of dull office routine into a piece of mass-produced sculpture.

Cast in irony: left, the Carlton shelving, designed in 1981, combines the iconography of trees, totem poles and furniture. Top, the Mandarin table, 1981, in laminate, lacquered wood, metal and glass. Middle, Karl Lagerfeld's Montecarlo apartment was furnished exclusively with Memphis. In the early Nineties, he sold the entire collection at auction. Above, private house, Casa Wolf. Below, glass vase, 1995

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