Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical is a retrospective of Sottsass’s extremely productive—and provocative—career, which spans more than six decades. His earlier works include iconic designs for Italian electronics manufacturer Olivetti, for whom he designed office equipment, typewriters, computers, and furniture. It was there that he produced the Olivetti Valentine typewriter, a cherry-red portable, plastic typewriter that suddenly made office furniture cool again.
His functional and rational approach to these machines and furnishing systems, however, was merely transitory. He moved away from his modernist beginnings by the 1960s, favoring qualities beyond the functional. Emotional appeal, symbolism, historical references, and the human condition all began to shape Sottsass’s postmodern works. His shift in ideology coincides with his travels to the U.S., where he worked briefly at designer George Nelson’s office, as well as his trip to India in 1961.
Sottsass is perhaps best known for his work with Memphis, a design collective that peaked in the 1980s and challenged the conventional design norms of that era—the streamlined, midcentury style. Memphis exemplified postmodern 1980s design: saturated colors, geometrical motifs, plastic laminate, and eccentric forms that rejected established styles. While short-lived, the design movement has seen a resurrection, with a previous exhibition at the Jewish Museum, an auction featuring David Bowie’s collection of Memphis furniture, and now the Met Breuer’s exhibition.
The exhibition will be presented in a range of media—including architectural drawings, interiors, furniture, machines, ceramics, glass, jewelry, textiles and patterns, painting, and photography. Juxtaposed with ancient and contemporary objects that influenced Sottsass, the exhibition aims to place him within a broader design discourse. Landmark projects, including visionary projects that influenced the founding of Memphis, will be on display. His later, lesser-known work will be highlighted in dialogue with pieces by other important 20th-century designers, including Piet Mondrian, Jean Michael Frank, Gio Ponti, and Shiro Kuramata.
Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical will be open to the public on July 21st, with an education program on October 1st featuring David Kelley, co-founder of IDEO, on Sottsass. See the Met Breuer website for more details.