Going on from July 21 to October 8, 2017 at the Met Breuer in New York City.
Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical
Wherefore the squiggle? Ettore Sottsasse (1917 to 2007) is best known as the founder of the Memphis Group, a band of artists and designers which was as ubiquitous at its height in popularity in the mid-1980’s and 1990’s as any major trend has ever been. The dancing squiggles, confetti color splashes, and juxtaposition of shapes awaken the eerie pulse of collective unconscious – these elements were foundational to sitcoms like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Saved By The Bell, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and the MTV Music video channel.
The Ettore Sottsasse retrospective going on now at the Met Breuer in New York until October 8, 2017 is partly meant to separate Sottsasse from his consequences in popular culture as a way of both isolating the man and giving background to his works.
Sottsass might have been hip to his own significance, and this show opens up with the artist describing himself in his notebooks, as if knowing full well an audience in the future would be looking at these notebooks. Ettore Sottsass considered himself an architect, but his emphasis wasn’t on designing houses so much as designing everything. A portable typewriter in the show’s first room is displayed next to a present-day laptop to show Sottsass’s influence.
After returning home, Ettore Sottsass worked as an architect with his father, often on new modernist versions of buildings that were destroyed during the war. In 1947, living in Milan, he set up his own architectural and industrial design studio, where he began to create work in a variety of different media: ceramic, painting, sculpture, furniture, photography, jewelry, architecture, and interior design.
The next room in the show has models for buildings that were never made to scale. These skyscraper prototypes are about seven feet tall by four feet wide, and the catch here is Sottsass was reacting to Warhol’s Pop Art of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Sottsass’s skyscrapers are blue and red, but with hard, opaque colors that don’t look like the translucent skyscrapers of real life.
Ettore Sottsass hit his stride when he designed a strange kitchen. The kitchen is a series of walls on wheels, and these walls might contain appliances like a sink or a dishwasher. People in a loft space could wheel the kitchen walls around and share the appliances as they wanted. In a video about the kitchen, Ettore Sottsass and his team wheel the kitchen around in real life, as if to say, this is possible.
The music to the video plays Pink Floyd’s “Fearless,” which has a chorus that sings, “You say the hill is too steep to climb? Climb it!” And the courage here – fearlessness – is against anyone who will say that something new can’t be done. This despair that “nothing new can be done” is a familiar complaint of middle school students, but from time to time it comes up in drunken sorrow in bars around Pratt, FIT, and Parsons’, and is probably best articulated by philosopher Mark Fisher (1968-2017), who at least made the commitment to this philosophy and killed himself earlier this year. Humorous art critics everywhere said Fisher’s action “had been done before.”
Likewise, Ettore Sottsass’s courage isn’t for everybody. Ettore Sottsass’s works have weird shapes, angles, and colors, and they integrate with each other strangely. Where surrealist artists have a mash of colors and shapes that smack of sex, Ettore Sottsass and company don’t have that. Ettore Sottsass’s work is curious because he was attempting to say things to the broadest possible audience, while still holding on to human emotions. Andy Warhol’s project of Pop Art plays with a very compelling wonder at the insatiability of desire. That sense of wonder is about when – on what occasions – and how – by what intentions – do people engage in ideals, and this doesn’t merely have to do with beauty or aesthetics. Consumerism, as literal here as buying a can of soup or a coke, means simultaneously desiring and then discarding objects. One drinks a coke out of desire for that coke, and uses the bottle and the fluid as a pseudo-religious daily ritual that starts and stops again and again when the drinker buys another one.
Ettore Sottsass’s works aren’t going down that cycle without a fight. Ettore Sottsass’s works have to be earned first of all, because looking at the art is a visceral experience, and probably best described as nauseating. Conflict between shapes in a table invites the viewer to experience a conflict, too. The initial fight makes them just slightly harder to throw away and to forget. This might be why people feel so nostalgic about the 1980’s so much more so than the 1990’s – there is a thing to be nostalgic about, that the personality of the 1980’s wasn’t scared to take a stand and be weird. Ettore Sottsass had a huge phase with ceramics and pottery, and this exhibit has a quote from Sottsass that ceramics from ancient cultures have outlasted nations, religions, and everything else.
Sottsass and company have some pretty fierce discussion points with minimalists, such as Agnes Martin, and postmoderns, such as Bruce Conner. Martin devoted months, and sometimes years, to giant works of painted squares, often in grids of yellow and gray. For all of its joy and simplicity, Martin’s works can be imposing and authoritarian, and some of the grids bring to mind endless Excel data sheets. Martin’s works are serene and calming in exactly the same way Sottsass’s works are not. On the other hand, Bruce Conner’s militant sense of humor was meant to destroy ideologies. Conner used humor in order to make fun of the Vietnam War, or the bombastic mania of tyrants. Conner’s works have the heat of the bombs he was rebelling against. And, while Conner shares humor with Sottsass, Conner’s projects often tear down and criticize as much as they create. In his works, Sottsass never harms the artists he criticizes and comments on, and this show achieves a moral higher ground by not seeking a moral higher ground in the first place.
Sottsass, Ettore. Autobiographic Design. 1993. Reproduction of original drawing. Courtesy of Erik and Petra Hesmerg.
Sottsass, Ettore. Tondo. 1958-1960. Ceramic plate with enamels. Private collection. Studio Ettore Sottsass Srl.
Sottsass, Ettore. Valentine Portable Typewriter. 1968. ABS plastic and other materials. Gift of Jean Pigozzi, 2017.
Quanta. One Laptop Per Child. 2005-ongoing. Plastic. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Yves Behar/fuseproject 2008.
Sottsass, Ettore. Superbox prototype (black/grey). 1969. Plywood, particle board, plastic laminate. Private Collection. Studio Ettore Sottsass Srl.
Sottsass, Ettore. Preliminary Project for Microenvironment. 1971. Collage with ink, gouache, acrylic and tape. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designer, 2013. Studio Ettore Sottsas Srl Digital Image, Copywright the Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.
Sottsass, Ettore. Preliminary Project for Microenvironment, Element for Landscape Home. 1971. Gouache and ink on print with acrylic. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the Designer 2013. Studio Ettore Sottsass Srl Digital Image, The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.
The '80s was the decade of crazy patterns, vibrant colors, and feathered hairstyles. The time had such a distinctive style that the mere mention of "the look of the '80s" conjures up specific visuals. The look was so influential that it continues to inspire design today.
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