ETTORE SOTTSASS: Visionary of Modern Design

Portrait of Ettore Sottsass - Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Corbis

Ettore Sottsass was an Italian architect and designer best known as one of the founders of the 1980’s Italian design collective, Memphis. Sottsass was quite prolific, designing numerous buildings as well as furniture, jewellery, home objects, and office machines.

Early Life and Education

Ettore Sottsass, 1969 – Photo by Giuseppe Pino | Mondadori Publishers

Ettore Sottsass was born in Innsbruck, Austria on September 14, 1917. His father, who was also named Ettore Sottsass, was a professional architect who would be a profound influence on the younger Sottsass life. In 1929, Sottsass and his family moved to Turin, Italy where his father found better work. Another reason for the move was to allow the youth to attend the Politecnico di Turino, Italy’s oldest technical university. Sottsass successfully graduated with an Architecture degree in 1939. However, he joined the Italian army soon after graduating, as the Second World War had begun in Europe.

Ettore Sottsass would serve in the Italian army until German forces captured him and sent to a concentration camp in Sarajevo in 1943. There, he would sit out the rest of the war. He used his knowledge of the German language to good use and got himself put in charge of the camp’s food stores.

Professional Career

In 1946, he came home to work with his father as an architect. They worked on rebuilding and restoring buildings that were damaged or destroyed during the war. They often updated these building using modernist designs. In 1947, Sottsass moved to Milan to set up his own architectural and design studio. It was during this period that he experimented with working on a variety of different media such as painting, ceramics, photography, sculpture, and furniture. This was on top of his work in architecture and interior design. He also curated an exhibition for the Triennale around this period. Another accomplishment was writing for Domus, an Italian design magazine. Eventually, Sottsass married Italian writer and journalist Fernanda Pivano in 1949.

Influences on His Work

Ettore Sottsass, Olivetti ELEA 9003, 1957 – Photo by Artribune

In 1956, Sottsass visited the United States for the first time. There, he worked for the American designer, George Nelson, in New York City. At the same time, Sottsass was commissioned for an exhibition of ceramics by Irving Richards, an American entrepreneur. He did not stay long in the United States and after leaving, travelled with his wife quite a bit before going back to Milan. Working with George Nelson had a profound effect on Sottsass, an effect that made him decide to shift from architecture as his main focus to design.

In 1958, he began working for entrepreneur and industrialist Adriano Olivetti. As a consultant for the Olivetti company, Sottsass was tasked to develop and design electronic devices. One of his first accomplishments during this period was the creation of the Elea 9003, Italy’s first mainframe computer, for which he won an award.

During his time with Olivetti, Sottsass designed office furniture and equipment that were quite unlike the ones that came before. In fact, it was through these designs that he made his name as one of the foremost designers at the time. What he did was to infuse pop culture elements into the modernist aesthetics that were popular then. What he created were furniture and equipment that were functional but not devoid of colour, form or styling. Among his creations then were the first typewriters he designed: the Tekne 3, the Praxis 48 and his most known typewriter design, the Valentine.

Ettore Sottsass “superboxes”, 1965 – Photo by Designboom

In the 1960s, Sottsass started to create more interesting and unique designs. Drawing from his experiences traveling abroad he designed pieces such as the “superboxes”, a series of cupboards made from plastic laminate that functions both as furniture and art, and large ceramic sculptures. It was at this point in his career that he became more experimental in his designs, leading to a more postmodern look. His work in new and experimental designs and his associations with the younger designers of various other studios during this period would eventually lead to the creation of the Memphis Group during the early part of the 1980s.

The Memphis Group

During the 1970s and the early 1980s, there arose some new groups creating designs that were different and more experimental than those of yesteryears. Sottsass, seeing the advantages of forming such a collaboration, created the Memphis Group in 1981. Partly, it was a way to join forces with his colleagues and partly an avenue for experimentation. The Group’s goal was to challenge the rationalist design principles that had been prevalent for so long.

Members of this group included Sottsass himself, Nathalie du Pasquier, Michele de Lucchi, George Sowden, and Michael Graves, to name a few. The name of the group came from the Bob Dylan song they were listening to titled “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again” during their very first meeting. The group debuted their designs during the Salone de Mobile in Milan in 1981, for which they were highly acclaimed. The Memphis Group was active from 1981 to 1988.

Sottsass Associati

SA 02 By Sottsass Associati – Photo by Laurameroni

With the Memphis Group gaining more and more attention due to its successes, Sottsass decided to create a major design consultancy called Sottsass Associati. His goal was to create and build architectural designs on a more massive scale for large industries. Eventually, Sottsass would leave Memphis in 1985 to focus on the Associati.

Sottsass Associati was primarily an architectural firm, but the company was also known for its striking design concepts. Aside from architectural and interior work, the Associati also designed consumer electronics and furniture for various companies. While Sottsass’s design philosophy guided the studio, younger designers did most of the actual work. The studio still operates to this day and has offices in both London and Milan.

Design Philosophy

Ettore Sottsass was extremely curious and he drew his inspiration from that. His ideas came from literature, geography, and anthropology. He also was an avid photographer and loved to travel, often picking up new design ideas along the way. Colour was also very important in his designs, and he used it effectively to add symbolism to his creations. His design philosophy can be summed up like this: His creations must be able to connect with people on more than just a surface level.


“Carlton” Room Divider – Photo by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sottsass died in 2007 at the age of 90. During his long and varied career, he created iconic objects that appeal to people on a deeper, emotional level. He changed the face of architecture, industrial design, and furniture design by injecting pop culture, colour, and geometric shapes. Perhaps his greatest legacy is that Sottsass’s work led people to see mundane objects in a whole new light.