Ettore Sottsass, radical expression


"If anything saves us, it will be beauty", said architect and designer Ettore Sottsass, who has given a lot of beauty to the world in his sixty years of activity.

Design doyen and guru, founder of the Memphis group, he has designed buildings, glasswork and ceramics, typewriters, furniture and surfaces. The Design Museum of London has dedicated a one-man show to him. The Mnemosyne “non-exhibit” was held at the Galleria Jannone of Milan, where Sottsass filled the walls with graffiti against human violence.

Q. The Memphis years were the same when you designed furniture like Cantone, Ospite, Portanuova, Nairobi and Mombasa for Zanotta (several still in production). Do you think that the applied arts and quality craftsmanship can continue to boost industrial design? 
A. I don’t know and I don’t believe that your question can be answered. More or less it is like you wanting to know if travelling by bicycle can boost plane travel, or you wanting to know how “to overcome the dualism between decoration and functionality”, that is to say, between “design” and “industrial design”. To make a “design”, one plans thinking about his hands, the wooden plane and the handsaw, whereas one thinks about the steel of machinery when planning “industrial design”. To plan design, one thinks of producing only a few copies, but to plan industrial design one even thinks of a million copies. It all seems clear to me. Where are the problems? The problem – rhetorical problem – starts when the production systems are mixed, meaning when one intellectually forgets that on one fine day in humanity’s long history the machine appeared.

Q. You have worked with very “special” industrialists, professionally and humanely speaking, such as Adriano Olivetti and Aurelio Zanotta. People who believed in design as a means for improving spaces and their perception, in some way even the quality of life of those who worked on it and lived by it. Design certainly has an important relationship with the existence of everyone, but can it still bring about some improvement in the present? If it can, how? 
A. Actually there was a time when enlightened intellectuals thought that the advent of the industrial “culture” could have improved the state of society. It appears that this hope was not fulfilled. Why? Certainly I am not the one who can tell you the reason why. Even less can I predict the improvements: the fates of the planet belong to the planet.

Q. According to sociologists who study design, Italian schools have turned out more than 25,000 people with diplomas and degrees in design between 1991 and 2005. In the last five years, even 235 per cent more young people have declared they would like to take up the profession of designer. How do you assess this phenomenon, you who have “trained” so many young people in your studio for years? 
A. I have never taught anybody anything. My young friends and I have worked together for years, and together we have tried to understand who we are and where we want to go. The same thing happened with Zanotta. We helped each other understand who we are and where we want to go.

Q. When Happenings asked Enzo Mari what other profession he would willingly do today, he answered: be a timber producer. We turn the same question over to you.  
A. I have never thought of doing any other profession that the one I have done. Even as a small boy I was designing.

(interview with Ettore Sottsass for the online magazine Zanotta Happenings, 2007)

(note: the products Cantone, Ospite, Portanuova mentioned in this article have been discontinued)