Ettore Sottsass is a lucky man. Despite feeling “really a bit lousy” on this blustery, cold, cloudy day, the 88-year-old lion of Italian design — in town for the opening of a LACMA retrospective of his work — is sitting in the warm, paneled library of museum patron Max Palevsky’s Beverly Hills home, where Sottsass’ black and red sofa and matching chair stand out like the scarlet flowers of a coral tree. The essential colors and forms of Léger, Matisse, Lichtenstein and Calder suffuse the home with a powerful, emotional intimacy, yet the designer’s untamed but comfortable pieces magically fit in. Maybe that’s Sottsass’ sustaining genius — his good fortune, in a career that spans nearly six-and-a-half decades — to reveal the delights of the visceral through wood and plastic and wool and glass and stainless steel. He has found a way to make objects that embrace machine-age technologies and materials even as they appeal to the fanciful and irrational. He is the alchemist of modernism.
His name, outside Europe, is as unknown as his work is influential. Still, although few of us own an original Sottsass — his pieces are executed, as he says, in runs of “nine, three, fifteen” — much of what he has done has made its way into the design vernacular. His Olivetti Elea 9003 mainframe computer, in 1958, preceded the Apple Power Mac G4 Cube by two generations, and established the notion that office equipment could be seductive and decorative, not merely functional. The Valentine typewriter, a candy-apple red, molded-plastic portable released in 1969, subverted altogether the very idea of a practical instrument for writing — and profoundly influenced designers of today, like Philippe Starck, who make little pretense at usefulness. In the early 1980s, Sottsass’ Milan-based Memphis design group produced a series of brightly colored, squiggly patterned, wackily shaped household furnishings that defied the modernist mantra “form follows function.” He took commonplace shapes and forms, piled them in unexpected ways, clad them in obviously cheesy materials and, voilà, the quotidian was a revelation. Postmodernism was off and running — with some critics blaming Memphis and Sottsass for dragging design (and architecture) into the obscure realm of camp, pastiche and, worse, mere historicism.
Sottsass neither avows nor disavows any of this. He insists that his work is “about the senses, not intellectual constructs.” As a boy, he lived in the Dolomites, where his father, a Vienna-trained architect, was sent to rebuild remote mountain villages destroyed in World War I. In the forest he discovered a world of “perfumes, climates, colors, tastes, sounds. That was my life as a child; only sensory. I wasn’t thinking — I had nothing to think. I was just feeling myself part of the universe, part of natural destiny. I kept this attitude of childhood, even now.” When I mention my frustration at being prevented from touching the pieces in the LACMA show, he smiles warmly and says, “Yes, you would like to touch them. It is a great compliment.”
With his gray hair pulled back into a tightly braided ponytail, his drooping mustache, and a few days’ stubble, Sottsass looks like a Sergio Leone villain. His chartreuse denim pants somehow reinforce the impression. He walks with a cane, and because it is easy to get in and out of, he sits on a desk chair that may well be from Office Depot. The cold affects him — he is protean, but he is old, too — and he is wearing a thick sweater-jacket over a sweater-vest. He complains that his memory is no good. Yet he is happy to talk, so much so that his wife, Barbara Radice, comes in after an hour to cut him off.
Thumbing through the exhibition catalog, Sottsass stops at the full-page photo of the Valentine typewriter, the piece for which he is, perhaps, best known. “I worked 60 years of my life, and it seems the only thing I did is this fucking red machine,” he says. “And it came out a mistake. It was supposed to be a very inexpensive portable, to sell in the market, like pens. It didn’t have capital letters, it didn’t have a bell [to let you know when you’d hit the end of a line]. I wanted the case to be inexpensive. Then the people at Olivetti said you cannot sell this kind of cheap Chinese thing. So, everything was put back: the capital letters, the bell, even the expensive plastic, which I was thinking would be this horrible, cheap plastic. So, it was a mistake.”
I ask Sottsass about IKEA and Martha Stewart, and the proliferation of design in home decor. “I don’t have a very precise idea about that,” he says, as if these diluted versions of his innovations had escaped his attention. He explains: “I have the idea that there is design and industrial design. Design comes from prehistory, millions of years. Sometimes they find a piece of bone with some dots, that’s design. Or shells with holes from a boy — maybe half-ape, half-man at that time — who gave it to a girl. That’s design. Like him, my wife or my friends are the final destination of my designs. For industrial designers, there is no ‘somebody.’ People are buying or people are not buying.
“To design something that is sellable,” he continues, “you have to have a special quality, which I don’t have. You have to understand what seduces people.” He says this without a glimmer of condescension, maybe even a hint of envy. Sottsass likes the world of objects, and when asked, “what’s a good industrial design?” he points to the nearest example at hand, a small plastic Sparkletts water bottle. “I don’t think it could be better produced,” he says. “Maybe [change] the blue in the label, but maybe not.”
“Are there too many objects in the world?” I ask.
“Do you know how many people are in the world?” he replies, rhetorically.
“Okay,” he laughs — the number alone proving the need for more things, and things to design.
A bit later, Sottsass is ready to head out to Palevsky’s Malibu residence, which in 1984 the Italian redesigned for his longtime friend. (And it is Palevsky’s financial generosity that made the LACMA show possible.) The conversation is over, and he is now fully absorbed, as he was in childhood, with the primal sensations.
“Max,” he calls out, “did you order sun?”?
ETTORE SOTTSASS, DESIGNER | Los Angeles County Museum of Art | 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through June 11 | (323) 857-6000