Ettore Sottsass was born in 1917 in Innsbruck. Most of his childhood was spent in Trento. There his father was responsible for the rebuilding of villages destroyed in World War I. In 1928 he moved to Turin with his parents and six years later he enrolled at the School of Architecture in the polytechnic of Turin.
Over the next year he wrote about art and interior design because it was interesting for him and also to follow in his father's footsteps. He graduated from the Polytechnic of Turin in 1939 but he had no time to use his skills because of the Second World War, so he joined the forces as a soldier. Four years later whilst serving with the Alpine troops in Montenegro he painted some cloth designs which the locals liked and printed, this re-kindled his desire for design.
When the Second World War ended in 1945, Sottsass joined the Guiseppe Pagano group of architects in Turin. A year later he moved to Milan abd started work as a designer.
He now owns his own studio in Milan and has since 1947. He has been chief consultant for design at Olivetti since 1958. He designed many of their products like the Elea 9000 Mainframe computer, the typewriters Praxis, Tekne, Editor and Valentine. Others include the TC Terminal computer system and synthesis 45 office furniture. Olivetti is not the only company that Sottsass has worked for, he has also worked for Alessi, Knoll, Yanotta and Venini.
In 1980 he founded Sottsass Associati, with Marco Zanini and Aldo Cibic. A year later in 1981 he founded Memphis. The company designs and makes furniture which are all hand-made 'one-offs' or prototypes which are available for anyone to buy. There is a kind of irony to the designs in that they are all one-of-a-kind pieces, but they are all constructed from materials typical of mass-produced items. There are industrial materials like plastics, laminate and metal.
Ettore Sottsass has had many influences for his work and his style is said to be changing all the time as he experiments with new things. Much of his inspiration comes from the different cultures he has encountered or anything which has touched him in any way.
In 1963 he suffered an illness and this was said to have altered his view of things, and in 1963 he produced a set of ceramics called The ceramics of Darkness. This was a 70 piece set which were all variations of a cylinder. They were said to be a kind of exorcism serving to bring him back from his encounter with darkness.
Another influence on Sottsass was the American culture, the brightness and vibrancy that pop artists would soon use in their work in the following decade.
The following extract is from a book entitled "Sottsass, My friend and Architect" by Jean Pigozzi. It shows how one person views Sotttsass's style:
"I can't believe it", says the pretty English girl after visiting my apartment that Ettore Sottsass has just finished designing in London.
"He really is 74? That's impossible, I thought that Sottsass was about 45 at the most. Everything looks so crazy and different."
"Yes, well, Ettore is 74 going on 31. His work is more and more original, it is more and more clever, less colours, less strange shapes but more elegant, more cerebral. The 'maestro' is getting better with age. My belief is that often architects and designers get better when they are older. Their art is very much about experience and figuring out how to re-create normal things that have been made millions of times before them, like houses, chairs and tea kettles..."
This is my opinion is a great description of Sottsass, written by someone who knows him and showing insight into his style and influences very well.
Sottsass has had a large influence in general on designers, artists and architects alike. Through memphis he continues to to shock and puzzle the mainstream design establishment and he is always ready to undertake new challenges.
Memphis is not now just a company, it is a movement which holds legendary status and his works are held in the permanent collections of prestigious museums all over the world.
He still works in Milan but he often travels abroad because of the inspiration he gets from visiting an 'alien' culture. He is a designer who likes his seclusion and isn't interested in reaching a wide public. He would rather get on with what he does best. He is also regularly asked to lecture wordwide so that his style and influence can be admired and passed on to a younger generation.
In his own words:
"I am a designer and want to design things. What else would I do?
Extract taken from "Ettore Sottsass, My friend and Architect." by Jean Pigozzi
If this is infringing on copyright then let me know and I'll remove it.
The Memphis group disbanded in 1988 as part of a planned obsolescence. Ettore Sottsass has since decided to focus once again on architectural work, and occasionally dabbles in NuMedia.
This concludes the BBC's Node your Homework broadcast.