Art & Design

July 19, 2017

Ettore Sottsass: Pop Design Icon

The avant-garde Italian gets celebrated in New York

  • Written by Grace Banks

Ettore Sottsass is the radical Italian architect and designer, whose work ranges from the the Maui home he designed for ACME studios to his founding of the Memphis Milano movement. Sottsass defined the avant-garde design of the 60s, 70s and 80s and a new show at New York’s Met Breuer looks at how his oeuvre shifted our idea of what contemporary design is.


Ettore Sottsass (Italian, 1917-2007), Valentine Portable Typewriter, 1968, 
ABS plastic and other materials, 
4 5/8 × 13 1/2 × 13 7/8 in. (11.7 × 34.3 × 35.2 cm) Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti
Courtesy of Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti © Studio Ettore Sottsass Srl

Whether it was wavy lines drawn onto chunky furniture in clashing primary colours or telephone tables that look like they came from a Saved By The Bell set, Sottass’s output is a mixture of high and low-brow references. And you can check it all out at Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical.

Sottsass_Side Chair Synthesis 45 Office Furniture System

Ettore Sottsass (Italian, 1917-2007), Side Chair “Synthesis 45” Office Furniture System, 1972
. Aluminum, steel, plastic, synthetic foam, synthetic fabric. H. 30, D. 16-3/4, D. 17-1/2 in.
 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift, 1987 © Studio Ettore Sottsass Srl

“I come from the Functionalist school—Gropius, Le Corbusier…” Ettore said in a 2011 interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “but I’ve always thought all this wasn’t enough, that we could go much further.” And he did.


Ettore Sottsass (Italian, 1917-2007),“ Mizar” Vase, 1982
. Glass
. H. 13-1/4 x W. 11-1/2 x D. 11-1/2 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Daniel Wolf, 2017 
© Studio Ettore Sottsass Srl

Sottsass designed computers for Olivetti electronics in the 1950s before breaking out alone and creating his 1969 Valentine portable typewriter (widely known as the inspiration for Apple’s iMac G3), the 1995 Carlton Room Divider (which doubled as a bookcase), the 1980 Ultrafragola wavy-edged mirror, and his instantly recognisable furniture in neon pinks, yellows and contrasting grey.

Sottsass_The Structures Tremble

Ettore Sottsass (Italian, 1917-2007), “The Structures Tremble”, 1979. 
Plastic laminate, composition board, painted steel, rubber, glass. 
H. 46, W.19-3/4, D. 19-3/4 in. Table Base: H. 45-3/4 x W. 15-3/4 x D. 15 3/4 in Glass Top: H. 1/4 x W. 19-3/4 x D. 19-3/4 in.
 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Theodore R. Gamble Jr. Gift, in honor of his mother, Mrs. Theodore Robert Gamble, 1987
© Studio Ettore Sottsass Srl

The Met Breuer have also brought together far-flung objects that inspired Ettore’s eccentricity – on show alongside his world-famous works are letters, sketches, jewellery, tribal artifacts and photography. Presented alongside his iconic designs, they make sense of the designer’s work – he wanted to present design as a form of entertainment and art – an idea that still rings true today.

Sottsass_Milan Omaggio 3 Comparison-Furniture

Ettore Sottsass (Italian, 1917-2007), Omaggio 3, 2007. 
Corian and wood
. 75 × 64 1/4 × 59 1/4 in.
 Courtesy of The Gallery Mourmans © Studio Ettore Sottsass Srl

Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical at Met Bruer – July 21 – 8 October


Main image: Ettore Sottsass (Italian, 1917–2007) , “Carlton” Room, Divider 
. Wood, plastic laminate 
76 3/4 x 74 3/4 x 15 3/4 in. (194.9 x 189.9 x 40 cm)
. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, John C. Waddell Collection, Gift of John C. Waddell, 1997 © Studio Ettore Sottsass Srl


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