Ettore Sottsass (1917–2007) remains one of the most seminal figures in 20th-century design. The Italian architect and designer created a vast body of work during an exceptionally productive career that spanned more than six decades. Not only did he envision furnishings, he produced architectural drawings, interiors, machines, ceramics, glass, jewelry, textiles and pattern, painting, and photography. One of the reasons his legacy is so strong is he will forever be known as the founder of the design collective Memphis, which launched in Milan in the early 1980s.
As the story goes, the group’s name was inspired by the Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” The effort grew out of a reaction its members had against the status quo. It would span most of the 1980s and result in objects that exhibited art deco tendencies, a color palette made famous by the Pop Art movement, and 1950s Kitsch. Colorful laminate and terrazzo were commonly found in their work.
Ettore Sottsass Remembered
To commemorate the 14th anniversary of the death of Ettore Sottsass (on December 31, 2007), the Pompidou Centre in Paris is honoring him with an exhibition entitled “The Magical Object,” which will be open until January 3, 2022. Featured extensively in the exhibition is material produced by Abet Laminati, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of decorative laminate, founded in the late 1950s.
The exhibition includes some of his most recognizable pieces of furniture along with over 400 works on display that include drawings, paintings, and design objects. There are 500 pictures and 200 original archive documents on view, as well. The objects on display are surrounded by installations of decorative panels in patterns that Sottsass designed for Abet Laminati. Bacterio, the designer’s most iconic and recognizable pattern, Serpente, Rete, and Spugnato clad the walls to create backdrops for the installations.
The collaboration between Abet Laminati and Ettore Sottsass, which began in 1964, became one of the longest-lasting and culturally active collaborations in the history of design. This is thanks to the company’s long-term vision and commitment to creative experimentation throughout those years. Sottsass was enlivened by experimentation at every level so it is no wonder this was a thriving partnership.
You can hear just how deep his rejection of convention ran in his essay “When I Was a Very Small Boy,” which was published by Design Observer. Near the end of the rambling narrative he wrote, “I would like to think that the old happy state that I once knew could somehow be brought back: that happy state in which ‘design’ or art — so called art — was life, in which life was art, I mean creativity, I mean it was the awareness of belonging to the Planet and to the pulsing history of the people that are with us.”
For Sottsass, design was, quite simply, a way of looking at life, a way “of building a possible figurative utopia or a metaphor for life.” The Pompidou exhibition, which traces his career from the early years to Memphis, consistently emphasizes the “magical thinking” that runs through the many different forms of expression and art that Ettore Sottsass embraced. To him, all “objects” represented the ritual punctuation of a cosmic totality, in relation to their “magical” appropriation by man.
Sottsass once commented, “I have always thought that design begins where rational processes end and magic begins.” Given the volume of design objects and projects we’ve seen over several decades of covering the home furnishings and architecture industries, we’d say he hit the nail on the proverbial head! We’d like to salute Abet Laminati for keeping the work of this lauded visionary alive. If you’re in Paris and you want to see this whimsical collection of objects, you can buy tickets online.