Ettore Sottsass: Designer who blurred distinctions between culture and commerce

Ettore Sottsass, designer: born Innsbruck, Austro-Hungarian Empire 14 September 1917; married first 1949 Fernanda Pivano (marriage dissolved 1970), secondly Barbara Radice; died Milan 31 December 2007

Olivetti's "Valentine" typewriter went on sale on 14 February 1969. It was the iPod of its day, a brilliantly packaged and seductively desirable machine designed to change conventional assumptions about what a typewriter might be. Its bright red plastic carrying case was not an afterthought, rather an integral part of the concept, turning a piece of office equipment into a fashion accessory.

Its designer said it was the "anti-machine machine". He wanted to reinvent the way people used typewriters, bringing them out of the office and onto the street and thereafter into the boutique, the caf or the disco. The red was significant to this counter-culture classic: "It is," the designer said, "the colour of the Communist flag, the colour that makes a surgeon move faster and the colour of passion."

Olivetti, for so long a world leader in the patronage of industrial design, no longer makes anything. But from the Forties to the Eighties of the last century, it made machines which deserved the place they so often found on museum pedestals, and its greatest designer was Ettore Sottsass, junior.

Sottsass was one of the great, inspirational figures of the Italian ricostruzione: Italy's post-war rebuilding had both the character of England's 19th-century industrial revolution plus the energy of America's contemporary popular culture, and cultivated figures of equivalent stature. The "junior" Sottsass always appended to his name was evidence both of his respect for his father, also an architect, and a token of his life-long infatuation with Americana . . . or, at least, his idiosyncratic interpretation of it.

Sottsass was born in Innsbruck in 1917. The unusual name, which delighted him, was a peasant conflation of sotto and sasso, meaning "under the stone": accordingly, he was always subversive, but poetic too. "E multo ironico" ("it's very ironic") was a favourite expression. And irony was frequently applied in his work.

Sottsass studied architecture at Turin's Politecnico and set up his own office there in 1946, after some rather ironic war-time service in the lite Alpini regiment. His first job was for the Istituto Nazionale per le Assicurazione whose INA-Casa scheme managed Italy's public housing between 1949 and 1962. The INA-Casa style was bold Corbusian modernism, but with Italianate sculptural flair.

But Sottsass was also interested in making small-scale domestic objects as well as urban megastructures. A 1956 trip to the United States was influential in his evolution from a public housing architect to the leading figure in the design movement that was Italy's greatest contribution to world culture in the 20th century. Nineteen fifty-six was the year a group of English artists, starved of colour and inspiration by years of austerity, discovered the vitality of the United States and called it "Pop". Sottsass too found himself seduced both by Abstract Expressionist painting and by the glorious vulgarity of American industrial design. America taught him that "the lacquer of an automobile could be as beautiful as an abstract painting". Later, Sottsass was one of the designers who made high-specification plastic an acceptable material for high-concept domestic furniture.

Pop, consumerism, corporate identity and counter-culture all collided wonderfully in Sottsass's work. In 1957 his collaboration with Olivetti began (although he always worked as a consultant, maintaining his own studio which over the years became a place of pilgrimage for young designers from all over the world). He designed Olivetti's first important mainframe computer, the 1959 "Elea 9003", making a Cold War number-cruncher look cute. His "Tekne 3" and "Praxis 48" electric typewriters were virtuoso industrial sculpture.

He had a formal wizardry with plastic and used that material's aptitude for colour to disrupt conventional attitudes and responses to machines. When, for my 12th birthday, my parents gave me Sottsass's lovely 1964 "Dora" portable typewriter (now in the Design Museum), it was the beginning of my own lifetime's conviction that well-designed industrial objects have usurped art's conventional role in the provision of beauty. Not to mention usefulness.

In the mid-Sixties Sottsass, hitherto a respectable-looking north Italian architect (with a taste for dark glasses), went to India, grew his hair and acquired the hippie moustache that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He by no means disdained corporate clients eventually adding Poltronova and Alessi to his portfolio but became increasingly interested in intense and profound studio ceramics and glass for the Vistosi company. It was at this time that Sottsass the designer began to acquire the ancillary roles of Sottsass the guru and Sottsass the intellectual delinquent.

So it was in the capacity of a sixtyish enfant terrible that in 1979 Sottsass became involved with the avant-garde Milanese group called Studio Alchymia, founded by the designer-journalist Alessandro Mendini. Sottsass contributed bizarre furniture designs to the first Studio Alchymia collection. Irrational and provocative, Alchymia had no commercial influence, but was a very thoroughly reported success of curiosity which provided Sottsass with a laboratory for his most ironic creative adventure: Memphis.

Memphis was the name of the collection of furniture, fabrics, lighting fixtures and ceramics which Sottsass and his colleagues at Sottsass Associati, the incubating firm he founded in 1980, presented at the 1981 Milan Furniture Fair. Sottsass chose the name because he liked Egyptology and Elvis; a Bob Dylan lyric may have been the precise inspiration, but he was very pleased when, slightly before the launch, I gave him my own 45rpm single of Chuck Berry's song (acquired at much the same time as my "Dora" portable).

For Sottsass the blizzards of creative anarchy and attendant publicity swirling around Memphis were a welcome antidote to what he described as an extended period of helplessness. With backing from the big Milanese furniture business of Artemide (charmingly managed by a professor of rocket science), Sottsass exploited industrial materials and (ironic) Fifties revivalism all overlaid with references to Milan townscape. This was furniture that made you laugh.

It was extraordinarily shocking, but Sottsass maintained "Memphis is everywhere" and claimed the designs were "quoting from suburbia". To his great delight, Memphis offended the po-faced lite of the design profession in Italy and elsewhere, while demystifying the subject to the rest of the interested world. In defence, Sottsass shrugged and said "Memphis' function is to exist. Why should homes be static temples?" Memphis signalled the end of Modernism's stern rule.

The somewhat melancholic Sottsass said he was a theoretical designer in the same way that Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist. And, like Einstein, he was often driven by a sense of the ludicrous. Not only did he design a typewriter for use in discothques, his 1973 "Sistema 45" office furniture for Olivetti was inspired by Mickey Mouse.

But in being playful, Sottsass was not being trite or slight: his formal creativity and intellectual irreverence blurred distinctions between art and industry, between culture and commerce. He allowed consumers to enjoy in industrial objects aesthetic and spiritual qualities hitherto only available in painting and sculpture.

I first met Ettore Sottsass in 1980, when the BBC producer Patrick Uden and I were working on a Horizon television documentary about the history of design. With Raymond Loewy and Dieter Rams, Sottsass was one of the great design trinity truly a maker of the modern world we chose to interview. We met in his studio, in those days just off Milan's via Manzoni. Sottsass was, of course, ironic, but wonderfully gracious and kindly. He spoke heavily accented, but fluent and imaginative, English. We went for lunch at the Torre de Pisa, around the back of La Scala, his favourite restaurant in a city full of favourite restaurants. He was dressed in an elaborate Missoni sweater and in the courtyard we passed his disgusting old Opel, completely covered in ossified bird droppings. He explained that it was to avoid the attention of the Red Brigade, but I think it was just as much a token of his ambiguous relationship with the industrial culture he had made his own.

This ambiguity with industry was a recurrent motif in his thinking. He disdained corporate sponsorship of the arts because "industry does not need to buy culture because industry is culture". Yet a project for Alfa Romeo ended in calamity. Commissioned to design a "concept car", he replaced carpet with Astroturf and painted the headlining with blue sky and puffy clouds. The Alfa people, more interested in machismo than irony, had it scrapped.

I saw him often in the early Eighties. The first time "Memphis" was seen outside Milan was in Terence Conran's and my Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1982. Negotiating this exhibition required many exceptionally pleasurable, usually inconclusive, meetings. Often these were in Sottsass's tiny flat in the Piazza Diocleziano where he played Rod Stewart on an old Dansette record-player and had dinosaur illustrations from a children's encyclopaedia Sellotaped to the walls by way of decoration. His companion, the journalist Barbara Radice, taught my wife and me how to make risotto properly.

In 2006 there was a retrospective exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum, which now turns out to be his memorial. Sottsass was one of the first industrial designers to attain international celebrity, and one of the first to give that celebrity an ironic poke in the eye. At a time when "design" is too often trivialised into meretricious novelty, his life is a reminder of something wonderfully ironic: an irreverent iconoclast of magisterial authority.

Stephen Bayley

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