Architect, designer, painter and photographer, Ettore Sottsass (Innsbruck, 1917 – Milan, 2007) was awarded a degree in Architecture at Turin Polytechnic in 1939, and opened a studio in Milan in 1947. An eclectic figure and an untiring traveler, Sottsass embraced the Concrete Art Movement, Spacialism, and he also explored Pop culture. In 1958 he began a three-year collaboration with Olivetti, for whom he became design consultant. In those years, during which he was awarded 3 Compassi d’Oro, he signed, among his many productions, the typewriters Praxis 48, Tekne and Valentine, and he also created a furniture system and equipment for office use.
Sottsass became the bearer of an idea of design as an instrument of social criticism, foreshadowing the ethics of Radical Design (1966-1972); he also designed products that offset the industry’s consumerist model, and thus afforded the human being a new centrality (formidably assembled in the exhibition Italy: the New Domestic Landscape held at the MoMA in New York, 1972). After becoming a member of the Alchimia group, whose goal was to bestow concreteness to the ideal and utopian instances of anthropocentric design, in 1981 Sottsass founded, together with Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaky, Andrea Branzi, Michele de Lucchi and other world-class architects, the group known as Memphis, through which he signed furniture designs that were to become Postmodern icons. His objects were always characterized by a clearly playful and ironic component (Carlton, Beverly, Casablanca), thanks to which function was outclassed by a sense of emotional urgency. In 1982 he founded Studio Sottsass Associati, becoming a major figure of international design.
Photography also played an essential role in the artist’s career. In 1943, as a soldier in the line of battle in the Eastern Alps, Sottsass used his camera to capture the desperation of men at war: and it was through his photography that he put together and wrote a visual autobiography, made up of journeys, architecture, human beings and nature. In the 1970s, along with the Spanish artist Eulalia Grau, Sottsass took many long semi-nomadic journeys between Barcelona, Madrid, Almeria, Granada, the stone deserts south-east of the River Ebro and the valleys of the Pyrenees. As he wandered he would build ephemeral, slender structures in the landscape, which he made out of cardboard, twine, leaves and branches and then took photographs of. These images, which he first began to organize accompanied by notes in 1976 on the occasion of the exhibition held for the reopening of the Cooper-Hewitt in New York, are divided into groups: Disegni per i destini dell’uomo, Disegni per i diritti dell’uomo, Disegni per le necessità animali, dated to between 1972 and 1974. In Fidanzati and Decorazioni, which Sottsass instead created during his trips to America, Greece, the Middle East and Italy, although the human being is present, the focus is especially on the architecture. These groups, dated until 1978 and collected under the title Metafore (“Metaphors”), are documented in the museum collection after being exhibited at the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in 2004 on the occasion of the event called Annali delle Arti.
Olga Scotto di Vettimo