Sottsass’s ‘Architecture for People’

Ettore Sottsass—one of the post-war architects who literally invented the idea of Italian Design—is today eighty-seven years old: a true éminence gris. Recently, I talked to the designer/writer and cultural provocateur at the Barry Friedman Gallery, which was staging his first furniture show in New York since 1987. Sottsass, whose work for Olivetti catapulted him […]

Ettore Sottsass—one of the post-war architects who literally invented the idea of Italian Design—is today eighty-seven years old: a true éminence gris. Recently, I talked to the designer/writer and cultural provocateur at the Barry Friedman Gallery, which was staging his first furniture show in New York since 1987. Sottsass, whose work for Olivetti catapulted him to the forefront of industrial design in the late 1950s, sported a long, grey ponytail and the countenance of a man who has come to terms with both his age and place in design history. Surrounded by his pieces, which spanned several decades, he discussed architecture, scale, and his physical connection to his work in a way that was rambling and utterly charming, the discourse bouncing like a ping-pong ball from decade to decade.

So what’s it like to walk around the gallery and see work from 30 years ago?

It’s very emotional in some ways. You think, “Oh my God, I did so much work,” and you have a sort of piety for yourself when you see how it was consumed. On the other hand, you think, “Okay, it wasn’t so bad. I tried to do something…” If you write an autobiography, you have memories. Some are nice. Some are not so nice. The result is nostalgia.

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Do you look at that Olivetti typewriter and think, “I would do that differently today?”

No. I see that it’s old work. When I was starting out, I worked for a small furniture company in Florence. It was just after the war. The company was not up-to-date on industrial processes. The production was very small, and it was based on art school ideas—on notions of aesthetics and beauty. That was the cultural environment. The first time I came to America in 1956, it changed my life. Because here I realized that the industrial culture was supreme.

And yet incredibly, Italy not only caught up, but in some ways surpassed us in terms of industrial design. Why?

I don’t know. Because the Fascists considered industrial design a foreign devil. The only industry was heavy public things: trains, cars, military equipment. Nobody was using the word “design” at that time. First, because we weren’t speaking English. Second, because there was no cultural reason to be a designer. There was no consumer industry.

You were all architects?

Yes. Italian design was started by architects. We were looking outside, so it was totally theoretical. It’s like talking about women when you’re, I don’t know, 19 years old. But in some ways that was a strength, because the architecture profession deals with society. And design until then dealt with industry, not with society. So architects, intellectual architects, placed great hope in design as a way to remake society.

You’ve designed at all scales, from product to furniture to housing. How do you approach scale as a designer?

I was born an architect. My father was an architect. During my childhood he was what they call a handicraft architect. He worked alone, sometimes with a young man helping him. He didn’t have a studio. So as a child, I always saw papers and drawings around the house. When my father made a mistake, he didn’t change the drawing, he erased it. So I had a very intimate idea of the work of architecture. Intimate in the sense that some of it was very romantic. This means that even today I don’t see architecture as a big dimension. I see architecture for people. Strangely enough, I’ve only designed houses for rich people.

As for scale, I say, “Today, you wear this dress. If you have a serious dinner, you’ll put on another dress. When you’re going to bed, you put on pajamas. The next morning, something else.” For different scales, the techniques might be slightly different, but it always starts with you.

So your basic approach is the same?

Yes. My profession is to design the artificial environment. In some ways it’s always the problem of, what is it? A room, a street, a house? It’s more difficult to design big architecture, or a private home, then to design the surroundings.

Do you have a favorite scale to work in?

That’s a nice question. Not the big scale, never. That’s a problem. American culture today is spread throughout the world, so you tend to start at a larger dimension. When I first came here, I immediately understood that you cannot avoid this dimension. America is big. Big land, big bridges and skyscrapers, big everything. Europe is much more intimate.

You’ve talked about drawing and designing. There’s a whole generation of designers who design exclusively on a computer. How have computers changed design?

I don’t know how to use the computer, but I have friends, young architects, who help me. I do small drawings. They immediately take those and put them in the computer. Then I sit nearby and say, “No, that’s too large, that’s too narrow.” So I design on the computer with my friends.

From a sketch?

The computer is an instrument. It’s like a pen. Naturally there is a difference. They say there’s a difference in speed. That it’s very useful for presentation. But for colors, it’s a disaster. The colors that come from computers are plastic. They don’t have soul. The drawings can be very beautiful. But sometimes when I see a drawing that comes from the computer, I don’t recognize what I’ve designed. It becomes impossible to understand.

Designers who’ve grown up drawing say that the idea gets finished too fast on the computer.

Yes. Not only that, but if you take the compass and make a circle, that circle doesn’t belong to you anymore. If you do that circle by hand, it may be a little bit broken, but it belongs to you.

And clearly—I’m watching your hands—you’re intimately connected to your hands.

I have to wash my hands every hour, because if I have a small piece of dirt on them, the relationship between the brain and hands is broken.

I wonder about designers who don’t do anything with their hands.

I don’t know what will happen, because this just started. This new barbarism. Maybe it’s like when they invented printing. The whole society changed. But I’m sure people at the time said, “Ah! It’s a disaster! The paper is horrible! No more gold leaf drawings! These books are a disaster!” I might be saying the same about computers. I don’t know.

You’ve done a lot of writing throughout your career. Are you currently working on anything?

A book of collected writings came out last year. Now I am trying to write an autobiography, but I don’t know if I will finish because it’s a horrible job.

The collected writings were another case where you had to go over old work. Like going through that room and looking at the Olivetti typewriter. What was it like reading your writings as a young man? Did you recognize that Ettore?

Yes. I recognized that the writing belongs, first of all, to another era. It was just after the war, so the design problems were totally different. I also went through a time when I was friends with the beat poets and acquainted with their new way of writing. So I was exploring the way words work. Today I deal mostly with the unknown.

When you’re young, you think you’re the first man in the world. Then slowly, you come to think that maybe the borders of thought are vague all the time, and life is more a comedy than a drama. You’re a bit more suspicious. You use more refined words. But now I read the old work and think: okay, at that moment I could write that way.

When Memphis took off, did you realize then that you were starting a kind of movement?

No. We realized that we were a group with a new approach. We did not consider ourselves a movement. You never really realize what you’re doing when you’re in the middle of it. We were just people drunk for existence, drunk for life.

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