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Ettore Sottsass: The hero

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Deyan Sudjic’s new biography is an engaging and readable biography of prolific Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass, writes Brad Yendle

Published recently by Phaidon to complement Philippe Thomé’s enormous pastel coffee table book simply titled SOTTSASS – Deyan Sudjic’s Ettore Sottsass and the Poetry of Things is a marvellously readable small biography of Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass Jnr.

The book’s cover design and headlining is typeset in a large setting of Futura Black, the stenciled typeface used for the plastic box of his iconic and possibly most famous design – the 1969 Valentine typewriter for Olivetti. Sottsass’s life is neatly sliced by Sudjic into nine chapters: Childhood, Turin, Coming Close to the Edge, The War, Post-war America, Olivetti to Apple, Radical Sottsass, Memphis and Sottsass Associati.

Sudjic clearly loves his subject – one of the first shows Sudjic put together once he became director of London’s Design Museum was a Sottsass retrospective, in 2007. There’s strong reason to admire him: his post-war Italian rainbow of design work – across all disciplines – up to his death in 2007 has stood the test of time, fascist calendars or otherwise. As you would expect, Sottsass crossed paths with many colourful characters: for example, there’s the ‘loose expressionism’ of painter Luigi Spazzapan, who in pre-war Turin taught Sottsass, and advised him not to use the colour yellow like Matisse, as ‘Matisse was 60 when he did that; you need many years of life to be able to paint yellow like that’. I doubt Sottsass heeded this advice – through his career he used colour like a Fauve.

Sudjic particularly gets stuck in historically

Sottsass’s early Austro-Hungarian childhood in Trentino is nicely examined. His first recorded (German) words were ‘Wie schön’ (‘how pretty’) upon seeing his first Christmas tree in 1918. His architect father would fight for the empire in the Great War, against Italians – whom Ettore would serve later in the 40s, both in the Alpini and the controversial Monterosa division. Sudjic – of Balkan descent – particularly gets stuck in historically once the young soldier Sottsass begins his service in the region during the Second World War, and I had to revisit these complex pages several times.

Sottsass’s CV was hugely impressive, yet he is not quite the household name he should be outside of Italy and America. His rational interior designs for small Milanese apartments (for clients such as the Agnellis), and quirky ceramics feature regularly throughout the classic 50s and 60s era of Ponti’s Domus magazine. He was extraordinarily well connected: during a visit to America in the mid 50s he briefly worked for George Nelson Associates in New York for either $35 a week (according to Sottsass) or $125 a week (recalled Nelson).

Ettore Sottsass and the Poetry of Things

Ettore Sottsass and the Poetry of Things

Sottsass was transformed by America – of Nelson’s office he stated: ‘There was the odour of fitted carpets and paints that I had never experienced before. Just as I hadn’t seen the colours, certain bright orange colours and certain blacks.’ Nelson and Sottsass remained friends for 30 years.

Sottsass also began work for Olivetti in the mid 50s – and designed the first Italian mainframe computer, the Elea 9003, for Olivetti in 1957. Initially Sottsass was worried that working for one of Italy’s largest corporations would result in him ‘being sucked dry like a lemon, of being neutered’ but he stayed on for decades, and witnessed their long fall from industrial grace at first hand alongside his nemesis Mario Bellini, who independently was running another design office for Olivetti.

The Memphis designs cemented his name in the design world

The Memphis designs of the 1980s of course helped cement his name in the design world, and some of his later architectural commissions – interiors of Milan’s Malpenza airport and a house for David Kelley in California (the designer of Apple’s first mouse) for examples – were seen as a late flourish to a long and industrious career.

In closing, I go back to another colourful Italian character brought to life brilliantly by Sudjic: Sottsass’s paternal grandfather, Giovanni Battista. He built mountain roads through the Dolomites at the turn of the century and ‘after a morning spent blasting rock with dynamite, breakfast for nonno Sottsass was a wooden bowl of glutinous tripe, taken back with a flask of throat-burning grappa’. With genes like this, no wonder Ettore scaled the heights he did.

BOOK Ettore Sottsass and the Poetry of Things, by Deyan Sudjic • 216pp • Phaidon Press • £19.95

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