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The master of delight

For 65 years, Ettore Sottsass' designs have turned the world on its head. And he's not done yet.

March 09, 2006|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

THE bulbous gold-leaf knobs on a yellow wood chest demand to be touched. A blue bookcase, tilted on its side, provokes giggles. (Books tend to tilt, so why shouldn't it?) Cutlery, ineffably simple but incredibly balanced, seduces the hand that holds it

For the Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass, shape, texture, volume and color are languages as direct as the spoken word. They talk to the senses rather than the intellect and deliver the message that using a beautiful object can make you feel more alive than using one that is less well-designed.

The 88-year-old, ponytailed Sottsass, here for his first major U.S. museum show, has spent 65 years making furniture, glass, ceramics, jewelry, even houses, into what he calls "catalysts of perception," objects designed to enhance the life of users simply by being used.

If this sounds abstract, Sottsass explains it much more simply: "To drink water from a waxed paper cup on the highway and to drink it from a crystal goblet are different gestures. In the first case, you almost forget that you exist as you drink. In the second ... you realize that you have in your hands an instrument that makes you reflect upon how you are living at that moment," he said in an interview in Domus magazine in 2004.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 04, 2006 Home Edition Home Part F Page 6 Features Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Architect's name -- In a March 9 article on Ettore Sottsass in the Home section, architect Lorcan O'Herlihy's last name was spelled O'Herlily.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 04, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Architect's name: In a March 9 Home section article on Ettore Sottsass, architect Lorcan O'Herlihy's last name was misspelled as O'Herlily.

Although revered in the inner circles of American design and architecture, the public has had little exposure to Sottsass' name or his art. That will change on Sunday when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art unveils the first museum survey of his designs in the United States.

The artist has long been iconic in Europe, where his work is exhibited at the great museums, and he is perhaps best known as the Memphis Man -- the rebel who formed the Memphis design collaborative in the 1980s and inspired an explosion of unorthodox ideas in furniture and decorative arts that rocked the Western world.

If you have ever mixed multiple patterns in a single room, painted one wall a daring color, purchased a teapot with a little bird that whistles when the water's hot or infused your house with inspiring objects from other cultures, there are experts who'll say it's due to the influence of Sottsass and his group.

"Sottsass is one of the greatest designers of the 20th century and one of the greatest poets of design of all time," says Paola Antonelli, curator of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "What he did was revolutionary, from the 1960s on. First, designing typewriters and mainframe computers for Olivetti, then doing the first decorative plastic laminates for Memphis, which are still in use today. And just his philosophical ideas about feeling free to be decorative. An approach to furniture that was full of poetry and humor, that was all about pleasure and iconoclasm."

After all the raves, the mystery remains: Why is this his first major U.S. museum show?

Ronald T. Labaco, the show's curator and LACMA's assistant curator of decorative arts, says it may be because Sottsass' work is so hard to pin down. "We tend to want to categorize and identify an artist with a specific style and kind of work. Sottsass eludes that. He has done such diverse things, in such diverse styles -- and he doesn't fit into any neat category of Modernism."

Still Sottsass has been most often described as a postmodernist, a term which he hates, says R. Craig Miller, curator of architecture, design and graphics at the Denver Art Museum. "But it's universally used to describe the movement in reaction to Modernist design of the Bauhaus, which was a very rationalist kind of industrial design. Sottsass was very much in opposition to that. His work, starting way back in his student days, is more emotional."

Sottsass started getting recognized in the 1960s, Miller says, "when he became a kind of gang leader of a group that tried to break away from Bauhaus. When Memphis was formed 20 years later, Sottsass was already in his 60s -- and when that work burst onto the international scene, it had seismic impact. It shook the foundations of design."

Peter Shire, an Echo Park artist and a member of the Memphis collaborative until 1987, recalls that period. "I was recruited to join Memphis after Sottsass saw my work in Wet magazine. He sent two of his colleagues from his studios in Milan to look me up in California.... He's an amazing, amazing person. So perceptive, with an intuitive understanding of the nature of life. The group he led was rebelling against what big design had become, which was stilted. No life in it. We released everything. Rectilinear structure went, color was liberated, and pattern. People suddenly understood what could be done. In simple terms, it's the only authentically different and innovative design movement of the second half of the 20th century."

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