Stuck Inside of Memphis

John Haber
in New York City

Ettore Sottsass

Before Memphis in Italy, there was Olivetti. Before the most postmodern of design collectives, there was the firm that produced hypermodern technology—including the first programmable desktop computer. Olivetti did so with style, too, well before Apple, and it hired Ettore Sottsass as a design consultant in 1958. The Met Breuer claims him for not just Memphis, which he helped found in 1981, but for sixty years as a "design radical."

Americans may have forgotten him, but Sottsass started his studio in 1957, at age thirty, and moved to New York the next year to work for the firm of George Nelson. That brought him to the attention of Olivetti, which hired him as a design consultant on its mainframe—the first in Italy. He had time for more, though, and the first sign of his mature work comes with a typewriter. Ettore Sottsass's Carlton Room Divider (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1981)Critics have derided Memphis for cuteness and tackiness, quotation and obscurity, and products for the rich alongside talk of design for everyone. Fans have embraced it for eclecticism, color, and an insistence on design as a matter of not just style, but "ways of living," and one can see all of these in the typewriter that quickly became a fashion accessory.

Saving souls

Ettore Sottsass grew up in Turin, near where Olivetti had its headquarters, and he wanted others to feel at home as well. He made that typewriter light and portable, with a slip-on case as a carrier. Both are fire-engine red, the color of toy trucks. "You don't save your soul," he said, "just painting everything in white." He had taken a basic tool of office work and made it more efficient. Yet he also made it a work of art, a work of the soul, and a matter of play.

The colors keep coming, and so does the eccentric assemblage of simple parts. Even in the 1960s, tables and shelves fly off in all sorts of directions, whether stacked or cantilevered with glass and palm fronds. Color appears from the start, too, with a chest of drawers in acid yellow—a tribute to Austrian Expressionism, but with a greater delight in excess. It appears as well in patterned tapestry, table settings, and clunky necklaces in red, yellow, black, white, and blue. "Everything in white" applies not just to Minimalism in painting, as with Robert Ryman, but also to architecture from Le Corbusier to Brutalism and Louis Kahn. Sottsass and Memphis wanted none of it.

Not everyone is out to save souls, especially in mass production. Olivetti declined to make much of the typewriter, and Sottsass moved on. He worried about souls, though, big time. Those yellow drawers form a cross after the floor plan of a church by Otto Wagner in Vienna. He also visited India in 1961, and he could not get enough of hoary civilizations. He modeled cabinets, glass, and ceramics on reliquaries, totems, funeral mounds, and symbols of enduring life. His retrospective becomes a vocabulary lesson out of more cultures than I can say.

Menhirs, stupas, ankhs, cairns, shabtis, lingas, djeds, katsina, shira offerings, mandalas—he drew on them all. So does the retrospective, with ready access to the Met's collection. The banquet of antiquities on the Met's roof, for summer sculpture by Adrián Villar Rojas, has nothing on this show. The curator, Christian Larsen, integrates sources, rather than setting them apart. She also supplies more than enough wall text to name them all, at the risk of distraction, often keyed to objects by number alone. You may have to remind yourself to look at the work.

Sottsass was out to save souls in the present as well. He saw society as drowning in consumer goods, and he hardly knew whether to make them more affordable or to teach people to set them aside. He liked fiberboard and laminates, although the show also includes marble and stone. He gave his dressers small drawers, with a mad profusion of knobs, so that people could organize their lives if they could only keep away the madness. He restyled cabinets as "Superboxes," to hold whatever their users had accumulated—and what they might wish to remember or to forget. The plan sounds like an ad for Manhattan Storage amid the clutter of small New York apartments today.

He sought to keep the focus on not just craft, but also something larger. He thought of himself to the end as an architect, and "all my designs look like small architecture"—much as that early design adapted the plan of a church. He thought of himself, too, as changing how people live. They would have "all the necessities," but nothing more, and design would take charge of them all. If that means his having a shot at practically anything, such is the conundrum of consumer society. It is also the conundrum of a designer who thought big but still wanted to play.

Which millennium?

The show becomes a massive puzzle, just as some of the furniture seems in need of assembly. It does not precede chronologically after Austria, where Sottsass was born and his father studied architecture. It devotes a room to Memphis—but the last room, just in case anyone wanted to make its brief years the whole story. They dominate anyway, with little from the late 1980s until his death in 2007, and others in Memphis turn up throughout. With Peter Shire from LA, Barbara Radice from Italy, and Shiro Kuramata from Japan, they are one eclectic bunch. Other design firms in Italy turn up as well, including Archizoom and Oeuffice.

Seemingly everything turns up at that, including all those global cultures. Each room runs from distant influences to the designer's influence on others. A room for Superboxes has a tall cabinet at its center, in a stark gray and black—but also Egyptian archaeology, the Wiener Werkstätte (or Vienna Workshop, founded by Josef Hoffmann) of 1903, Donald Judd, and an Italian's striped ziggurat from 2012. You may find yourself asking what belongs to Sottsass. What continent is this anyway? What decade or what millennium?

You may find the display exhilarating or frustrating, and you can praise or blame the Met. Still, be sure to praise or blame its subject as well. He claimed centuries, but also Modernism's mainstream. That could indeed provide a handy definition of Postmodernism. He worked alongside Pop Art and Minimalism, but he was old enough to have experienced Viennese art, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, the Bauhaus and its weaving workshop, Piet Mondrian and De Stijl, and another architect out to remake modern life in his own image, Frank Lloyd Wright. Sottsass appeared in "The New Domestic Landscape" at MoMA in 1972.

Memphis alone has its puzzles, including whether it rejected not just "form follows function," but function itself. Shire's teapot looks too heavy to wield, with a spout way too far back—and Shire calls it his Mexican Bauhaus Can Opener. I would not get too close if I were you to Kuramata's rethinking of a Marcel Breuer chair in glass. Scholars are still puzzling over a colorful construction by Sottsass, as a bookcase or a room divider, with its open arms as those of a robot or a Hindu goddess. When he turned to luxury goods, he also felt free to mock them, and he could well have been mocking himself. Miss, a title asks, Don't You Like Caviar?

Was Memphis then a dead end or too whimsical for words? Another member, Michael Graves, still has the last word in teapots, but his architecture has fallen further out of fashion than the past styles it so heedlessly quotes. The movement took its name from ancient Egypt and Tennessee, but could it really have a commitment to both? It also alludes to "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," the song by Bob Dylan, but without the piercing anger or despair. If Roy Lichtenstein had served the actual pharaohs, instead of the pharaohs of midtown Manhattan, he might have produced something like this.

That eclecticism has its lessons, though, and so does the fear for market forces and modern life. So, too, do the wild colors, defiant masses, and broken symmetries. Their influence shines in the exhibition poster, with staggered pairs of letters from Sottsass—all the more so after the much derided redesign of the Met's logo. The fire burns, too, in that portable typewriter and its fire-engine red. Could Sottsass have known that you would want a colorful case for your phone? Could he have known that you would want to take your "Thinking Machines" with you on the train or to the beach?

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"Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical" ran at The Met Breuer through October 8, 2017. A related review takes Olivetti to the first desktop and "Thinking Machines."


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