IN AN AGE OF PROFESSIONAL SPECIALIZATION, the vanishing Renaissance man still dwells in Italy in that permeable membrane between design, architecture, and writing. But even by Italian standards, no designer-architect-editor-writer was more the Renaissance man than Ettore Sottsass, who died on Dec. 31, 2007, at the age of 90.
The design landscape teems with the charming surprises he created at every scale, from his fingernail polish–red Valentine typewriter for Olivetti (1969) to Malpensa Airport in Milan (2000). He wrote for the architecture magazine Domus and co-founded, with Allen Ginsberg, the literary journal Planeta Fresco, and he led the iconoclastic design movement Memphis, which crucified in the most delightful way the purism of modernist Italian design culture, of which Sottsass had been a card-carrying member. He abandoned notions of modernist beauty, comfort, and function in favor of mischief and endowed objects with spirit. Functionalism, he said, “it's not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.”
Born in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1917 and raised in Milan, Italy, Sottsass graduated in 1939 from Turin's Politecnico with an architecture degree and, after the war, opened an industrial and architectural design office in Milan. Like others of his generation, he focused on Italian postwar reconstruction.
It was a good time to be a designer. The cataclysm of the war had shifted the design paradigm, opening Italy to a more exuberant, less fettered form of Modernism, sustained by a newly stabilized and growing economy. In 1958, Sottsass began his 30-year association with Olivetti, daring to introduce shocks of color—and therefore emotion—into the office while challenging doctrines of function and taste within the new modernist establishment. With engineer Mario Tchou he created for Olivetti the Elea 9003 (1959), Italy's first calculator; soon after, they redesigned Olivetti's mainframe computer with blocks of color that distinguished various parts, while lowering its height so that technicians could speak to each other over the top. (He was a humanist, too.)
In 1981, Sottsass was one of the moving spirits behind the launch of the Memphis collection—furniture and household items created by a loosely knit international group of designers and architects. Accustomed to classic good taste, the cultured eye had to adjust to the clash of discordant materials, kitsch, and abruptly juxtaposed forms, one shape having nothing to do with the next. Memphis electrified the design world, announcing an alternative based in a Pop Art sensibility rather than dry and exhausted rationalism. It didn't matter that you couldn't really sit in the chair—you sat in a concept. The pieces had attitude.
Sottsass' restless imagination caused him to return to architecture in the mid-'80s, when he designed shops for Esprit as well as private houses. He continued to work as a designer, for Apple and even for more somber companies like Siemens and Philips, wielding his considerable personal and design charm to subvert conservative business environments.
The design world followed Sottsass' career closely for more than 50 years, acknowledging his achievement with retrospectives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2006 and at the Design Museum in London in 2007. His opus was remarkable for its range, inventiveness, and cheek. He was the rare iconoclast who produced enduring icons that became classics despite their contrarian premise.