Ettore Sottsass: Rational | Irrational

by guy keulemans on March 6, 2009

Recently I have been reading a lot about Sottsass, some on the net, but mostly from the book Etorre Sottsass: A Critical Biography, an illustrated biography written by his third wife Barbara Radice. Generally I have found it very useful, especially when considered in the framework of my thesis topic of designing objects for atheists. This is because atheists tend to be very rational, and so embrace functionality instead of conceptual or metaphorical allusions in objects. Yet, for an object to reflect an intangible worldview and speak to the heart intuitively, it must contain some aspect of irrationality, to elevate it above conscious understanding and into the realm of the emotional. This contrast, one could say even a duel, between rational and irrational concerns is very present in Sottsass work, and produces much of its emotional impact.

The book opens with a description of Sottsass’ urge to travel around the world intensively, running from place to place with fervour and a mad desire to photograph everything. At one point he took 1873 photographs in 12 days in South America. He is described as travelling to consume life, but yet he is also disgusted and appalled at the consumption of others. His travels to the United States in 1956 revealed American consummerism to him and led him develop objects that were “tools to slow down the consumpton of existence” as if he was designing to self-medicate his own manic personality. I think its clear also, reading between the lines of the introduction, that he had self-esteem issues, which he sought to surmount by constant and passionate ambition.

Sottsass wanted to get ride of rationalism, which he said, “did not cover by any means the necessities of existence”. One of his reactions to rationalism was break it apart and reform it. Radice says that with the very rational Bauhaus, he took its elements and performed a “transplant operation”. He re-arranged the ratios, distances and weights that he saw in the Bauhuas style into an “irony of dis-proportion” seen in much of his ceramics and furniture, but at other times into a playful hyper-rationalism, seen in his ground-breaking work for Ollivetti. These are streamlined, strict yet soft machines; as if he had thrown all the elements of modernism into the air to see the kind of chaos in which they would land, but they had reformed by chance into a perfectly formulated solution. Radice writes that this is because, for all his love of irrationality, Sottsass was aware of the intimate effect objects can have. Sottsass remarks:

“When I began designing machines I also began to think that these objects…. …can touch the nerves, the blood, the muscles, the eyes and the moods of people. Since then I have never designed a product in the same way as I would design a sculpture, and I have been utterly obsessed with the idea that… …I was setting off a chain reaction of which I understood very little. “

Yet, this does not extend to all his designs, such as in his “super-boxes”; giant wardrobes that are more provocation than product. Covered in custom laminates that pre-date Memphis by 15 years, these shocking objects were derived from Sottsass’ exposure to American pop art, and its appears a very direct influence from the minimalist Donald Judd, but also his early work on super-computer chasis design for Olivetti. But, Radice writes, their ultimate effect was to consume and dominate the the room in which they were placed as if “dropped into the cosmos”; an effect Sottsass learnt from his experiences in India. Etore said many years later “They were such crazy things they were hard to imagine”.

(The first image of an electronic printer for Ollivetti, whose form feeds into Sottsass’ later super-boxes. This last image is of a scultpure by Donald Judd – note the almost identical sketch from Sottsass notebook next to the sketch of the superbox in the photo above.)

Sottsass’ Memphis period is famed for its rule-breaking and perceived irrationality. But it seems that the rule-brekaing is highly conscious and therefore very rational. Sottsass agrees:
“I’m always offended when they say that I play when I do memphis work; actually I ‘m very serious, I’m never more serious than when I do memphis work. it’s when I design machines for olivetti that I play.”

To conclude, Sottsass had two distinct phases to his process. Sottsass was open about finding his inspiration in the realms of the irrational, and I believe the first part of his process was to explore irrational ideas agressively and intuitively. He remarks:

“…we draw our product-language stimuli not so much from institutionalized culture, not from technology, not from some sort of institutionalized certainty, but from spheres where everything starts afresh again, is uncertain, contradictory, without firm outlines.”

And you can see that in the formation of his Memphis products. Yet their is a second phase of his process, the management of irrationality. Once he had a slippery hold on an certain idea, he would mold it with care and sensitivity to rationalism. This made it communicable to others, and can be seen in the gentle curves of contact surfaces, or the logical placement of knobs on his cabinets. I don’t think it worked all the time; personally when I look at a lot of his work I can only point to a small percentange of I actually like (although you can argue that virtually all are at least interesting). Sottsass’ impact today comes from that fact that when we remember the output of an artist, as with many things, as with life, we t
end to remember only the very best.

Quotes and information from
“Etorre Sottsass: A Critical Biography” by Barbara Radice,
Design Boom article “Memphis Remembers”:
“Memphis, Research, Experiences, Results, Failures and Successes of New Design” by Barbara Radice

I just discovered this wonderful little story on Artnet, about a young woman’s journey to Milan to interview Sottsass when he was 89. It’s perfect little vignettes include this gem:

“Over a meal at a nearby restaurant, I started bombarding him with questions about architecture, even though it wasn’t really architecture I wanted to talk to him about. Sottsass seemed tired. He said his basic idea was this:

“a room should have a few objects in it, and those objects should be so intense they vibrate.”

I started to cry. Objects vibrated. I knew that, but I thought they did it only because I was lonely and I needed them to.

I tried to hide my sniffling but I could see that Sottsass knew, and that he felt exasperated and sorry for me and curious about the shape of my breasts all at once. And I smiled ruefully because I knew what a pain-in-the-ass stalker/journalist I must be being. And he smiled back and said, “Here is a story,” as if those words would solve everything. “

from The Curious Mr Sottsass by Amy Fusselman

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