The man who coloured the ’80s in pas­tel

A new ex­hi­bi­tion ex­am­ines the ca­reer and in­flu­ence of Et­tore Sottsass, whose play­ful aes­thetic in­flu­enced a gen­er­a­tion

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE -

Rarely has one per­son de­fined an epoch as com­pletely as the ar­chi­tect and de­signer Et­tore Sottsass did the late 1980s and early 1990s. The totems of the era - Cosby sweaters, swatch watches, neon rollerblades - can be traced di­rectly to ob­jects his de­sign col­lec­tive, the Mem­phis Group, un­veiled at a Mi­lan fur­ni­ture fair in 1981.

This sum­mer, the Metropoli­tan Museum of Art in New York is tak­ing on the task of not only re­viv­ing Sottsass’s rep­u­ta­tion, but also in­tro­duc­ing the world to his lesser-known early work. In an ex­hi­bi­tion at the museum’s Breuer build­ing, Et­tore Sottsass: De­sign Rad­i­cal, vis­i­tors are taken on a tour of the chairs, com­put­ers, and sculp­ture that de­fined the de­signer’s world.

By the 1970s, Sottsass had ex­per­i­mented with vir­tu­ally ev­ery medium. He’d made wooden fur­ni­ture, in­clud­ing a mag­nif­i­cent, Jenga-like as­sem­blage of shelves and draw­ers, Tower Cab­i­net from 1962-1963, which the show puts on prom­i­nent display. That whim­si­cal, al­most im­pos­si­ble piece of fur­ni­ture is con­trasted with a side chair from 1972’s ‘Syn­the­sis 45’ Of­fice Fur­ni­ture Sys­tem. Olivetti man­u­fac­tured the alu­minium chair, with its cheer­ful yel­low base and drab brown fab­ric, for cor­po­rate of­fices around the world.

Only in the fi­nal room of the show do vis­i­tors en­counter his Mem­phis Group de­signs, the most ex­cit­ing ob­jects in the ex­hi­bi­tion. By the time he co-founded Mem­phis in 1981 - the name is par­tially an homage to Bob Dy­lan’s song Stuck In­side of Mo­bile With the Mem­phis Blues Again - Sottsass was a ma­jor fig­ure in his own in­dus­try, and the group had back­ing from man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies ea­ger to ap­pro­pri­ate his avant-garde im­pri­matur.

The re­sult, un­veiled at the fa­mous Salone de Mo­bile, was a collection of 57 pieces rang­ing from a colour­ful, -pri­ma­ry­coloured couch to a book­shelf made out of lam­i­nate-cov­ered par­ti­cle board. These ob­jects were never in­tended for mass con­sump­tion; they were con­sid­ered lux­ury items. They’re still for sale. Af­ter walk­ing through the Met Breuer’s gal­leries, vis­i­tors can buy Mem­phis fur­ni­ture in the gift shop down­stairs, or go on- line, where one of Sottsass’ “Carl­ton” book­shelves is on sale for US$15,345.

The re­sponse to the Mi­lan ex­po­si­tion was im­me­di­ate: Sottsass and the rest of the group were lauded for mix­ing pop cul­ture and high de­sign, and - this won’t come as news to any­one who spent the early 1990s wear­ing bright pas­tels - their aes­thetic soon per­me­ated ev­ery corner of the globe. Esprit, the cloth­ing com­pany, for in­stance, com­mis­sioned Sottsass to de­sign its geo­met­ric, wildly colour­ful show­rooms.

Met cu­ra­tor Chris­tian Larsen sad­dled him­self with the ad­di­tional chal­lenge of pair­ing the 80-plus Sottsass works on display with an­other 80 or so ob­jects by dif­fer­ent artists, pri­mar­ily drawn from the mu- seum’s per­ma­nent collection. Some of these sup­ple­men­tary pieces had a di­rect in­flu­ence on Sottsass’s prac­tice: A 1910 mother of pearl ink­stand by Josef Hoff­mann, for in­stance, is paired in a vit­rine with one of Sottsass’ early, Vi­enna Se­ces­sion-in­spired ce­ram­ics. Else­where, a neon­pink, green and black cab­i­net, Omag­gio 3 from 2007, is con­trasted with an achingly beau­ti­ful geo­met­ric paint­ing from 1921 by Piet Mon­drian. Other pieces, though, feel more tan­gen­tial. One room is dom­i­nated by Sottsass’ serene ce­ramic totems from the late 1960s.

Sottsass’ own work is so var­ied that de­lin­eat­ing it from the crowd can be dif­fi­cult. Ev­ery­one other than a true Sottsass scholar will be forced to peer at wall la­bels to iden­tify what’s what, which is per­haps too much in­ter­ro­ga­tion for a ca­sual vis­i­tor. Still, the show is ul­ti­mately a se­ries of pushes and pulls, an ex­hi­bi­tion in true di­a­logue with the art it showcases.

It be­fits Sottsas’s ca­reer, which was a string of ex­per­i­ments, a se­quence of tri­als and er­rors that cul­mi­nated in a global in­flu­ence.

Et­tore Sottsass

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