Remembering Ettore Sottsass

Carlotta de Bevilacqua, vice president of lighting brand Artemide, reflects on the legacy of architect and designer Ettore Sottsass and his unique relationship with the company

When he died in 2007 at the age of 90, the architect and designer Ettore Sottsass left a remarkable legacy. Having turned his hand to most disciplines in design, including furniture, jewellery and glassware, as well as to many designs for buildings and interiors, Sottsass is perhaps best known for his iconic Olivetti typewriters and his work with Memphis, the experimental group of designers he founded in 1980.

To celebrate the centenary of his birth, the lighting brand Artemide is rereleasing two of Sottsass’s most memorable designs for the company – Pausania and Callimaco – as part of their Masters’ Pieces collection. Here Carlotta de Bevilacqua, the vice president of Artemide, reflects on the designers relationship with the company, and with Artemides founder, Ernesto Gismondi.

Sottsass is remembered as a true trailblazer in late twentieth century design because of his commitment to the plight of freedom of expression in design. Memphis, which he founded in 1980, became a laboratory of experimentation and creativity where designers could feel totally free from the technical and aesthetic restraints of functionalist design.

Ernesto Gismondi, the founder of Artemide and my husband, worked with Sottsass for several years in the Memphis group. Sottsass was involved in the creative part whilst Ernesto oversaw the various editions and managed the Memphis collective. It was during this time that a friendship was born and they discussed the idea of working together on projects for the company. Artemide and Memphis were fundamentally different – they always had different aims and logic – but Sottsass was able to bring this element of experimentation to his designs for Artemide.

The Pausania light

The Pausania and Callimaco lights, designed in 1982 and 1983, are still in our catalogue today as part the Masters’ Pieces collection of contemporary design classics. In Pausania, Sottsass took the classic banker’s lamp and experimented with the shape and colour in order to produce a Memphis take on the traditional design. Today, Pausania’s technology has been reimagined not only to adapt to contemporary standards of intelligent, eco-friendly and energy efficient LED lighting, but also to provide a new quality of perceptive experience.

The Callimaco lamp

Callimaco is amongst the most original of Artemide’s designs, unique in its own quest; it is a fusion of industrial and lighting design and a powerful statement piece. It too has been reimagined with retro-like features such as a LED lighting and a touch dimmer.

Ernesto Gismondi and Ettore Sottsass © Barbara Radice

Beyond the professional path, I remember Ettore as a family friend, with whom Ernesto communicated and exchanged ideas even after the Memphis movement. He designed many pieces that went on to become icons, but some of my favourite Sottsass designs are from his glass and crystal collection, where he utilised traditional Venetian glass blowing techniques while also finding a new way to work with glass by studying the quality of material. Through this perfect mix of tradition and innovation, he produced surprising combinations of shapes and colours that had never been seen before.


Memphis at a Glance

Looking back at the international movement once described as ‘a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price’, and its place in design, art and pop culture

Installation View, Less is Bore, KAI 10 and Arthena Foundation, 2016, Achim Kukulies, Düsseldorf © VG Bildkunst, Bonn 2016 für die Werke von / for works by Ettore Sottsass

In 1980, an Italian architect by the name of Ettore Sottsass invited a small group of like-minded designers to meet in the hope of launching a movement free from the tastefulness that characterised the modernist style of the late 1960s. Bob Dylan’s song ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ played in the background. The American architects Denise Coot Brown, Robert Venturi and Steven Izenour had recently published Learning from Las Vegas, a bold charge against the ‘duck’ – architectural structures expressive through their overall form – and the ‘decorated shed’ – architectural structures dependent on applied ornament – of the previous decades. Sottsass, who had already established himself as a forward-looking artist and ceramicist, had unknowingly initiated the Memphis Group as one of the most provocative design collectives of the 20th century.

For Sottsass, as well as for other members including Alessandro Mendini, Michele De Lucci, Matteo Thun, George Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier, there was no room for the banal. Excess and extravagance were their default. Their debut at the 1981 Milan Furniture Fair – featuring cabinets with snake-skin print doors, outlandish clocks and its founder’s garishly coloured Carlton bookshelf, to name a few – became a showcase for this stance against so-called ‘good design’.

Ettore Sottsass, Carlton bookshelf, 1981, Uwe Dettmar Courtesy Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt am Main © VG Bildkunst, Bonn 2016

Their designs were strange and arresting. Lamps were loud; shelves bent in odd angles; triangles, arches and halved cylinders rested in precarious compositions. “When I was young, all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism,” Sottsass once said. “It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.”

While some were confused, even repulsed by the designs, others struggled to choose their favourite. Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, revered for his taste, was so fond of these off-kilter forms at the time that he furnished his entire Monte Carlo apartment in Memphis designs – a shrill contrast against his penthouse’s black rubber floors and grey walls hung with nudes by Helmut Newton.

Alessandro Mendini, Poltrona di Proust, 1978, © Museum Kunstpalast – Horst Kolberg – ARTOTHEK Courtesy Stiftung Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf

Its playful and peculiar style became so entrenched that, by 2012, 25 years after the dissolution of the group, Memphis earned its famed description as ‘a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price’ from Bertrand Pellegrin. Even now, interest in the design movement continues abound and a forthcoming book, Less is a Bore: Reflections on Memphis, and an exhibition in Dusseldorf of the same name, continue to chart Memphis’ place in the design, art and pop culture today. 

Less is a Bore: Reflections on Memphis, published to accompany KAI 10 Arthena Foundation’s exhibition of the same name, is out in October