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EXHIBITION

REVIEW

Ettore Sottsass: A Life in Design At the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1, until 10 June

Ettore Sottsass is the bad boy of post-war design. Trained as an architect, he started off well enough in Milan with some cool office design, inspired by a short but decisive time with the famed US designer for Herman Miller, George Nelson.

Sottsass hit the headlines with the brightly coloured, plastic Olivetti Valentine portable typewriter. It wasn't great to type with - not nearly as pleasant or sturdy as its predecessor, Marcello Nizzoli's classic cast-aluminium Lettera 22 from 1950 - but here was a bit of kit in pre-Opec crisis plastic, hinting at en vogue disposability, most often seen in bright red and exactly on the stylistic nail for 1970. This was two fingers to the cool of the Ulm School, which had most notably inspired a range of Braun electrical goods of muted colours and surpassing simplicity.

But then, in 1980, Sottsass went 'crazy': he got involved with Studio Alchimia, started up design collective Memphis, and turned kitsch forms, colours and materials into high-art furniture of outrageous shape.

If the Valentine typewriter was two fingers to northernEuropean restraint, here was that expressive southernEuropean gesture involving a fist chopping into the crook of the opposite elbow - a gesto dell'ombrello to the whole of Modernism. Five years of outraging his peers later, Sottsass dismantled Memphis and concentrated on the more conventional business of running his design practice, Sottsass Associati.

During that brief period, Sottsass was not much of a form-giver but he rocked the certainties of the Modernist establishment, with its steadfast adherence to the orthodoxies of the right-angle, of monochromy, of self-effacement and well-mannered dullness.

It is arguable that Sottsass (and some of the more extreme practitioners of Po-Mo just then) pulled the plug on stuffiness and enabled architects to start thinking about other ways, not necessarily Memphisstyle ones, of creating architecture. Even Grimshaw and Foster eventually started trying out curvy building forms.

The Design Museum exhibition charts Sottsass' well-known story, but it is oddly disappointing. There are perhaps two reasons. One is how little coverage there is about his work after Memphis.

Exhibitions such as this are, of course, totally reliant on the subject for material, so maybe this is the show which Sottsass, now in his 90s, wants us to see.

The other disappointment is that there is nothing unexpected. We have seen practically everything in the exhibition, albeit in lavish colour photos, many times before. I think people like shows which offer even a morsel of novelty, a fresh view, an unexpected insight. You might blame the curators but, actually, maybe there isn't much more to the Sottsass story than a muchneeded and very talented maverick successfully shaking the pillars of the temple.

Sutherland Lyall is an architectural journalist

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