“A lot of people don’t know Ettore Sottsass and they are missing out,” says curator Christian Larsen, when speaking about his recently opened Met Breuer retrospective. “Sottsass may be a new name for America, but he is a household name abroad.” This summer, Larsen and team hopes to put the radical Italian designer into larger circulation by unpacking his varied, sixty year oeuvre with a floor swallowing exhibition.
To show the intricacies of the designers career, Larsen and his team split the exhibition into twelve parts. It opens with his early work. Sottsass was an intellectual designer who broke into the industry as an architect and low cost housing builder. During his architectural studies, he found inspiration in European Bauhaus movement and modernism. One can observe the influence of Bauhaus on the designer when examining pieces like his planter from 1961 which is made of wood carved into simple geometric shapes.
Building upon his foundation in architecture, Sottsass branched out to explore corporate design taking on the world’s first transistor mainframe computer. The exhibit highlights that the designer considered the computer frame one of his greatest achievements, yet also a sheer mistake.
In these first rooms, one is exposed to Sottsass’s breadth and innovation outside the Memphis movement. Pieces like “Superbox,” a piece designed to satisfy multiple functions, showcase the enigmatic thinking that underscores the designer’s wild aesthetics.
The next sections focus on Sottsass’ landscape designs followed by his work in glass and ceramics. Working with hot temperatures was a pleasure and nice change of material for the designer. He explored ceramics from 1956 right until his death developing fine tuned skills along the way.
Sottsass’ patterns follow his more precious, tabletop works. The elaborate designs emphasize his strong relationship to color, movement and patterns. The exhibition concludes works by Sottsass in relation to four of the 20th century’s most influential artists, including Piet Mondrian, Jean Michel Frank, Gio Ponti and Shiro Kuramata. The purpose of this section is to highlight the ways in which the Italian designer drew inspiration from their respective approaches to design, art, dimension, and color. Sottsass wrote about his relationship with these designers and seeing his work side by side in the masters section amplifies Sottsass’s discussion and relation to ongoing movements of the 20th century as well as his own contribution to the dialogue.
In the gift shop, the comparisons continued. Larsen and his team reached out to several contemporary designers to create objects inspired by the radical designer. Items like colorful, geometric lamps, stools, bookshelf and editions sit alongside actual pieces by Sottsass. With so much to see and touch, one imagines Sottsass will be on the tip of the American tongue sooner rather than later.