The late Italian architect and designer, Ettore Sottsass, is best known for his work with the Memphis collective in the 1980s, founded upon what he termed, “the new international style”—marked by flamboyant color and a playful aesthetic—as a reaction to the stark, monochrome, and mass-produced modern designs of the 1970s he viewed as lacking in individual style and personality.
His work with Memphis, deeply based in the spirit of collaboration, is the backbone of “Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical,” now on view at the Met Breuer in New York City through October 8.
The exhibition is two-fold, focusing on Sottsass’s varied sources of inspiration—Otto Wagner’s Steinhof Church in Vienna, Austria; Bauhaus design; Pop art; Buddhist mandalas; futuristic set design in Stanley Kubrick’s film, “2001: A Space Odyssey”; Native American Katsina dolls; puja trays used in offerings to Shiva; artists like Donald Judd and Frank Lloyd Wright—and putting his work in conversation with his contemporaries.
Before Memphis, Sottsass was part of the Radical Design and Anti-Design movements in Italy, making work that challenged traditional design principles and the government. He was a prolific artist in several mediums throughout his six decades-long career—illustration, ceramics, jewelry design, typewriter design, domestic landscape design, and fabric design, along with his contribution to architecture and furniture design. The artist favored a minimalist approach to living, and this is apparent in his vision for a contemporary utopia in which all of life’s necessities could be held in what he conceived of as communal “Superboxes.”
This exhibition shows the complexities and interconnectedness of Sottsass’s work. Walking through the galleries, it’s like we’re inside his brain, following his inspirations in fits and starts, being pulled in a multitude of directions, but ultimately seeing through-lines to his contemporaries, other artistic movements, and his ultimate influence on art and design.