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Ettore Sottsass, the Enigma that Slowed Down the Consumption of Existence

The exposition “Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical” opened at the Met Breuer of the Metropolitan Museum on July 21st


Sottsass in India, 1988 (Credits:_ Barbara Radice).

An exposition that represents an important contribution to the understanding of this enigmatic Italian artist through his wide portfolio of work. To Ettore Sottsass, drawing was a reflection on the human condition, with a concerned critical sense of the consequences of “consumerism” and the possibility of creating an antidote.

We should hope that someone will soon write an Ettore Sottsass’s biography, because just in a few cases the artists’ life meticulously, indeed intentionally, reflects on his work. A life that, in his case, meant the times in which he experienced the army among Mussolini and Hitler’s “Repubblica Sociale Italiana” – Italian Social Republic – forces and the times in which he languished in a Yugoslavian concentration camp. Then the times in which he was Olivetti’s star at Ivrea as the artistic director up until his time in America during the crucial formation of the Pop Art movement. Then in India where he went to meditate on the deep reasons of existence. As he wrote: “Because we are constantly persecuted on our own planet by a mystery, something that many do not want to realize.”

Photo: Francesca Magnani

This is an important contribution to the understanding of this enigmatic character through his wide work as an architect and artist that will be now exposed in a huge retrospective and monographic exposition. The exhibit will open on July 21st at the Met Breuer, which is the beautiful building that was erected in the middle of Manhattan by another great architect, who was almost contemporaneous to Sottsass, Marcel Breuer. The Met Breuer is used by the gigantic Metropolitan Museum as a guest house for modern art. The exhibition is entitled “Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical” which places emphasis on the more revolutionary past of Sottsass’s drawings. This multi-faceted and varied production, that stretches from Milan Malpensa airport to a microscopic plastic jewel, will take place during the 100th anniversary of Sottsass’s birth and 10-year anniversary of his death at the same time. In the four illustrated pages, that are a sort of resume and metaphysical memorial created during his visit to America in 1956, Sottsass proudly starts with three words: “I am Italian.” This statement silenced the perplexities raised by his last name. In fact, he was born in Trentino, that for a year would still be Austrian, from a Viennese mother and an Italian father, who was an architect as well, actually a great architect. Then the family moved to Turin where Ettore was put to study at the Polytechnic Institute.

Sottsass’s great achievements as a designer started first at the Olivetti – beginning with computers and the Valentine typewriter; then, as an architect and designer in Milan. It is impossible to summarize the hundreds of multi-faceted objects and drawing of all sizes that are exposed on an entire floor of the museum. However, the task is made easy when one realizes that, whichever practical use it’s designed for or whichever material was used, Sottsass’s creations are considered by the artist “architecture” and always treated as an “autobiographical gesture.”

Olivetti, Ettore Sottsass (Photo: Francesca Magnani)

This happens even if the objects are everyday object. The most distinctive expression of this architectural-biographical identity is his “Superboxes:” wardrobes of all sizes, color and material, from wood to iron and laminated plastic. The owner should use them to imprison his goods and human identity at the same time. In the ideal situation, the “Superboxes” would be used, in a gesture of maximum minimalistic efficiency, to hold everything an individual owns and needs to live.

The “Superbox” was imagined and built by Sottsass ever since he worked at the office in Turin that would be called “Poltronova” – armchairs, chairs and every other “new” piece of furniture, always of radical innovation, as the title of this exhibit highlights – at the beginning of the 1960s. The “Superbox” ended up having even a totemic, religious meaning; it was suggested to keep it away from the wall, as a sort of an altar, in order to be seen and appreciated every day as an aid to living. The design generally has some boldly conceptual aspects, but not always; sometimes it was a simple expression of calm, even a reflection on the human condition. It was a time in which in America, but in Italy as well, people were reflecting on the consequences of “consumerism” and on the possibility of creating antidotes with an alarming critical sense.

Photo: Francesca Magnani

Sottsass wrote: “It is about creating tools that will slow down the consumption of existence itself…that will hold back loneliness and desperation.” Then, there was the ambivalence expressed by the Pop Art towards the industrial production, and that even Sottsass echoes in simple forms from the past. For instance, two single Roman column fragments placed one on top of the other. They are next to one of the strange and magnificent trapezoidal windows of the Met-Breuer. Underneath, the intense Madison Avenue traffic flows.

Translated by Giulia Casati.



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