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Memphis Group Founder Sees Work as Child's Play

June 16, 1989|LEON WHITESON

Ettore Sottsass, the godfather of Italian New Wave design, goes about creating his brightly colored eccentric furniture, architecture and interiors like a child at play.

"My deepest images are the ones I recall from kindergarten building blocks," the 72-year-old designer said. "From the regime of education, professional training, technological method and brute necessity, my mind escapes to my play blocks like a kid let out of school."

In 1980, Sottsass founded the influential Memphis Group, whose building-block creations influenced Post-Modern design at every level. Using bold geometric shapes, primary colors, vivid textures and a wide palette of materials, the group created a wide range of radical designs, from European showrooms for Fiorucci and Esprit to Olivetti typewriters and lighting for Knoll. Sottsass' famous "Treetops" floor lamp, for example, has a perky yellow metal hat perched on a long curve of peach-colored steel tubing that slides into a green triangular boot at the base. It is, like all Sottsass designs, not just a functional object but a personality in its own right.

Earlier this year, Sottsass completed his first Los Angeles design--the Mayer-Schwarz gallery on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. The gallery's dramatic doorway, made up of irregular folds and jagged angles of multicolored terrazzo, leads into a space Sottsass described as "a metaphysical place." The gallery interior is cool white, offering respite from the busy sidewalk beyond the powerful doorway.

Sottsass also designed a pagoda in Malibu for art collector Max Palevsky, as yet unbuilt. He currently is building houses for clients in Ridgeway, Colo., and Maui, Hawaii.

On his most recent visit to Los Angeles, Sottsass described the personal events that led him to join with other "radical" Italian designers Aldo Cibic, Matteo Thun and Marco Zanini and art historian Barbara Radice to form the influential Memphis Group in Milan in 1981.

Reaction to Modernism

"We were in reaction to the cerebral Modernism that ruled Italian--and European--design in the decades after World War II. A narrow functionalism dominated every field, from architecture to industrial design. Objects as large as buildings or as small as lamps were locked into an often elegant but generally sterile 'honesty' of use expressed in their purist shapes. Emotion was eliminated as sentimental."

In an exhibition catalogue written in 1980, Sottsass shocked modernists with the confession that he chose materials such as spongy paper from government account books and mosaics of public conveniences that abandoned any intellectual intent or expectation.

In halting but expressive English peppered with evocative phrases, Sottsass explained that he offers no ideological system but rather a collage of thoughts, which he calls a series of private gossips.

Though a resident of Milan, where he shares an apartment with Radice, Sottsass considers himself a foreigner everywhere. "Milan is so moral and modernist in its ethos, so obsessed with its design purity, that they scowl at my frivolity," he said.

Thinking about this "foolish purity," Sottsass' ancient bloodhound eyes and lugubrious mustache are lightened by a charming grin.

Sottsass' destiny began in Innsbruck, Austria, where his Italian father was an architect. He graduated in architecture from the University of Turin in 1939, "just in time for World War II." After six years of army service, Sottsass, like the rest of his countrymen, found himself in a country devastated by Mussolini's failed ambition to create a new Roman Empire.

Early Struggles

The young architect starved and struggled until the late 1950s, when Olivetti commissioned him to design a computer housing system for its newly created electronics division.

"For me the computer was a magic cabinet, a kind of electronic divinity that had to be clothed in somber and systematic armor," he recalled. "I was still a strict modernist, laboring at design as if it were a purely mental exercise."

Two very different streams of influence converged to begin Sottsass' conversion to non-rational design. One was the deep impact made upon him by a 1961 visit to a 1,000-year-old Indian temple with "paving stones polished by the wax of millions of ancient candles and by the bare feet of marvelous dancing girls." The other was '50s U.S. pop design with its freewheeling informality--the polar opposite of high-minded European purity.

These disparate emotional experiences were intensified by the political and social upheavals of the '60s, in Europe and the United States. Sottsass met radical poet Allen Ginsberg and several of the leaders of the 1968 Paris student uprising.

"These people and events, joining the wellspring of my own feelings, led me to reject the designer's role as a slave of the consumerist system," he said. "There had to be a way in which everyday objects, whether mass-produced or not, had to recover their sensorialita-- their emotive power as personalities in their own right."

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