Ritual Cadences

New York

27 July 2017

The collection of objects amassed to produce Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical, a retrospective that recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Breuer Building in New York, places the postmodern master within the complex transition from modern to postmodern. It juxtaposes Sottsass's work with an almost equal number of objects by designers and makers who influenced him. In doing so, it emphasises the sheer range of disciplines with which he grappled during his 60-year-long career. The crux of the story, however, seems to be the interplay of figuration and function throughout Sottsass’s exceptionally productive career.

Sottsass is best known as lead designer of Memphis, a group of Milanese designers who privileged clashing patterns, whimsical shapes and bright hues over the minimal formalism preferred by their modernist predecessors. The collective only lasted from 1980-87 and Sottsass departed in 1985. Yet the distinctive, rebellious Memphis aesthetic came to dominate the European design scene and has become synonymous with postmodernism. Sottsass is also famous for the 1969 Valentine Portable Typewriter for Olivetti – in bright red, “so as not to remind anyone of monotonous working hours” – which never reached mass audiences at its time of production. It did, however, set the stage for office equipment to have personality, and went on to influence the design of Apple’s coloured iMacs.

Although these aspects of Sottsass’s work are certainly not given short shrift in the Met Breuer exhibition, the emphasis on other aspects is refreshing and draws out an astonishing mix of influences. The objects selected, for instance, emphasise Sottsass’s willingness to experiment by drawing on the aesthetics of various geographies and periods. Tower Furniture (1960-63) is an early piece of hybrid furniture that seems to be a cross between a shelf, cabinet and chest of drawers. The latticework, dowels and cubic proportions suggest the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement. These interests merge with "Eastern" touches – the red and black lacquer, gold leaf and pagoda construction – inspired by the heritage of engineer Mario Tchou, who worked for Olivetti at the same time as Sottsass, and who commissioned Tower Furniture.

We learn that Sottsass, who had initially studied architecture to please his father, likened this piece of furniture to a building by referring to it as “a kind of perception machine for the interior of the home". As a one-off object, it's an example of the sort of work that Sottsass was initially dedicated to. “With Etsy and the craft revival today," says the exhibition's curator Christian Larsen, "we want uniqueness and individuality. Sottsass is the guy who started that. You can pin that to his origins.”

One of Sottsass's key inspirations came from a trip to India, where he was taken by totems, cosmic tropes and religious iconography. This trip is given an interesting focus in the Breuer exhibition. During his first visit to India in 1961, Sottsass contracted nephritis, a serious illness that was considered fatal in Italy at the time. He went to Stanford in the USA for treatment that saved his life, but his recovery took some two years. This period inspired some of Sotsass's most personal projects, including two ceramic series that are included in the exhibition. It also marks the beginning of a new chapter for Sottsass creatively – one characterised by objects imbued with emotional appeal.

One such work is his series of a hundred ceramic plates, Offerings to Shiva. The examples on display are embellished with circular lines and resemble trays ritually used in the worship of Shiva in Hindu festivals. In the same gallery are five of the original industrial ceramic totems that comprised the Menhir, Ziggurat, Stupas, Hydrants and Gas Pumps project that Sottsass showed at Galleria Sperone in 1967. Their forms were inspired by objects as divergent as the stacked-up medicines that Sottsass had had to take during his illness, as well as stupas and lingas that he had seen during his travels.

Examples of the latter from the Met’s vast collections are shown in dialogue with Sottsass’s, and add texture and context to the show. Some such treasures include a model of an Indian stupa from the 11-12th century consisting of a cylindrical barrel on a double-lotus base and multiple layers of diminishing diameters surmounted by a lotus bud. Comparing objects from such seemingly different periods shows that Sottsass was fascinated by the richness of ritual and ceremony he had witnessed above all in India. In an essay called 'Disegno Magico', Sottsass wrote about transferring the magic properties that ancient peoples had invested in their objects into his own work, implying that he saw his own totems as spiritual monuments just as much as the ancient relics he had encountered.

The significance of the metaphorical in Sottsass's work is further illustrated in a display of jewellery by Sottsass and contemporaries such as Robert Venturi, which juxtaposes their architectural, geometric necklaces with ancient examples of Egyptian clasps that symbolically functioned as amulets. In her 1987 book Jewelry by Architects, Barbara Radice (a Memphis member and Sottsass’s partner), wrote that through this jewellery, “they draw on the most distant past, a past that is mysterious because it is forgotten. They do not repeat styles but seek out ritual cadences, concealed fragilities, tenuous figurative suggestions, or powerful and solemn forms.” The amulets emphasise the significance of these objects’ intangible qualities in the designers’ minds.

The context in which his works are shown reveals Sottsass to have been a polymath designer with an intense curiosity for the world – particularly India – that extended his complex perception of materiality beyond the tangible. Functionality, in the eyes of Sottsass, was never enough. As he once said, “design should also be sensual and exciting.”