7 creatives on Ettore Sottsass, the genius who designed the ’80s

CNN  — 

In the 1980s and early 1990s, garish swirling graphics and colorful geometric shapes ruled American TV screens, department stores and high school playgrounds.

From Fisher Price toys to the opening credits of “Saved by the Bell,” the era’s designers carved out a distinct day-glo look that is an unmistakable product of its time.

But they were all taking cues from one radical Italian designer and architect: Ettore Sottsass.

Sottsass’ short-lived collective, Memphis, was made up of about two dozen Italian creatives. As well as attracting the attention of high-profile collectors, including Karl Lagerfeld and David Bowie, the group’s wildly stacked blocks and zig-zag patterns inspired the mainstream designers who defined the aesthetic of an optimistic age.

A ‘renaissance’ figure

But while Sottsass is best known for his work with Memphis, he spent just six years of his seven-decade career in the collective. By the time he formed the group in 1981, the Austrian-born Italian (then aged 64) had already traveled Europe with Allen Ginsberg, photographed Picasso and Hemingway, built a postmodern New York flagship store for the fashion brand Fiorucci, and helped design some of Silicon Valley’s earliest computers.

His influence touched the farthest reaches of the design world, inspiring generations of young designers from across many disciplines, according to Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, who describes Sottsass as a “renaissance figure.”

“He was not just an industrial designer or an architect. He worked in ceramics, paintings, jewelry and interior design, as well as photography and writing. He was also the editor and publisher of his own magazine,” said Obrist, a friend of Sottsass’ for more than 10 years before the designer’s death in 2007.

“It’s common for people who make a great contribution in one field to go into different fields. But it’s very rare for people to make amazing contributions to entirely different fields. He was unique.”

To mark the 100th anniversary of Sottsass’ birth, Le Stanze del Vetro museum in Venice exhibited more than 200 of his glass works earlier this year. A major retrospective of Sottsass’ work – from both before and after his time with Memphis – will be on show until October at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new design-focused sister venue, the Met Breuer.

Here, we hear about Sottsass’ work and legacy from some of the design industry figures who knew – and were inspired by – the Italian designer and his collective.

Karim Rashid

karim rashid 1

Karim Rashid is one of the most prolific designers of his generation, responsible for well-known creations including the Bobble water bottle and the Garbo trash can.

I studied with Ettore Sottsass for three months in 1983 and I remember his words: “Find what you can contribute that no one else can in this world.”

He did really powerful, useful design work. But you can really see his soul within it. The whole premise of Memphis was almost Ikea-like: these things would be super cheap and built out of plastic laminate. They were made to reach a lot of people.

At the same time, it was so poetic, powerful and experiential. (His work) makes us look at the physical world in a different way. It teaches us that objects around us can still function perfectly, but they can imbue and provoke such positive energy and spirit. They can also be radical, in that all of a sudden you see a very banal thing in very different way.

Rashid recommends: the sensual Olivetti Valentine typewriter

A "Valentine Portable Typewriter" (1968) by Ettore Sottsass, owned by David Bowie.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Known for publishing hours’ worth of interviews with the world’s leading artists, Hans Ulrich Obrist is the artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries.

(Sottsass) was 63 when he founded his architecture practice, Sottsass Associati. So, in his sixties, seventies, eighties, he developed a whole life as an architect which could be (considered) a career in itself. He designed the interiors of Milan’s Malpensa Airport, private homes and the famed early Esprit stores.

Read: Grayson Perry explores the UK’s culture wars to the Serpentine

If somebody had just his architecture career, that person would be a very significant architect of their generation. But he is this renaissance figure (who practiced) industrial design, ceramics, glass and interior design, but also paintings, photography and writing.

It’s almost like the super string theory in science, where the world has 11 dimensions – he brought all the disciplines and all the fields together in one person. Every generation will find a different Sottsass to revisit.

Obrist recommends: his lesser-known photographs

Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez

Designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez founded New York-based womenswear and accessories brand Proenza Schouler in 2002. Their clothing has featured Memphis-inspired shapes and graphics.

proenza schouler ettore sottsass

We’d love to say that we first discovered the Memphis movement through the context of design history, but we, like many of our friends, really first encountered that particular aesthetic through things like “Saved by the Bell,” “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” and (skateboard brands) Vision and Santa Cruz. It wasn’t until much later on, during our college years, that we realized that this poppy, nostalgic aesthetic that so many of us responded to was actually rooted in a serious design movement.

It kind of authenticated our moments of being seduced by things like neon colors, graphic shapes and plastics. It’s a look that harks back to a simpler, more wide-eyed and carefree moment in our lives. It takes us back to a time when many of us were first discovering popular culture via things like MTV. As a result, it has a special place in our hearts.

McCollough and Hernandez recommend: Sottsass’ rejection of ‘good taste’

"Mizar Vase" (1982), by Ettore Sottsass.

David Kelley

A Stanford professor and founder of global design firm IDEO, David Kelley invented the world’s first computer mouse. He lives in a house designed by Ettore Sottsass.

When was I was living in Silicon Valley in 1974 to 1975, I was inspired by Ettore’s designs on Olivetti’s computers and office (products). His stuff looked quite different from everything else – it just made me think “oh, you can think of these things differently.” Sottsass only designed three houses in the United States, including the one in Woodside, California, that I live in.

I put together a big book of all the things I’d wanted in the house, and what our lifestyle was like. He looked at the book for maybe 25 seconds and said: “This looks like you want a house for living in the past. Let’s design you a house for living in the future.” As a worldly Italian who enjoyed life, he was going to fix this nervous American’s life by building him a house. I think he did build us a better life.

Kelley recommends: his home

David Kelley residence, designed by Ettore Sottsass.

Camille Walala

WALALA x PLAY at NOW Gallery, Greenwich Peninsula

Camille Walala is a London-based print, graphic and textile designer whose bright, playful installations mix Memphis influences and African design.

I grew up in the 80s, and my dad was an architect. He gave me some plates with these amazing triangle designs.

At the time, I didn’t really know who the Memphis movement or Ettore Sottsass were, but I loved them. We put (the plates) in boxes to keep them safe, and I completely forgot about them.

In 2008, I went to the university library and found some books about Sottsass. I was hysterical looking at them. The colors and the sense of humor in his work – I just didn’t know there was already something like Memphis in the design world. I love the architectural shape of the lamps, the toy-like hoovers and the Carlton book shelf. For London Design Festival in 2015, I made (the installation) “Walala in Da House” with Memphis patterns, plates, lamps and prints, which was a bit of an homage to them.

Walala recommends: the Esprit shops

Ronan Bouroullec

Ronan Bouroullec is one half of French design team Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, whose work ranges from vases to urban design

Sottsass invented a very specific formula which (allowed him) to play with heavy, geometric shapes. And yet, his works were always full of sensuality and vibration. He said that, for him, there is no hierarchy in objects: To design an ashtray or a house is the same problem. It is as complicated to do an ashtray. It was very interesting to learn from Sottsass that a good object is exactly like a beautiful person. It’s a mix of different aspects that, in the end, chemically produce something bizarre and interesting. A good object is never a perfect answer.

Bouroullec recommends: his glass and crystal works in Venice

Misha Kahn

Misha Kahn is a Brooklyn-based furniture designer who said that he wanted his latest collection “to do Memphis as if it was about Memphis, Tennessee.”

Lavumisa (2015), by Misha Kahn in collaboration with Gone Rural.

I remember discovering (Sottsass’) work in college and being very influenced by its spirit. I think I was more inspired by his willingness to swim upstream against conventional taste than his visual language. I love the Carlton bookshelf – it’s sort of anthropomorphic and feels like a dance party, which isn’t often something you’d say about a bookshelf.

The shapes and colors of my Lavumisa chandelier were really Sottsass-inspired. (I designed it) at the height of a Memphis revival, and I felt like I wanted to introduce some natural materials to the mix to see how it felt.

"Carlton Room Divider" (1981), by Ettore Sottsass.

Misha recommends: the Carlton Shelf