Playfully Postmodern Glassware from the Founder of the Memphis Group

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Allodola, 2003Ettore Sottsass, Photography by Bruno Gecchelin © Ettore Sottsass by SIAE 2017

Ettore Sottsass’ Glass works are an ode to the beauty of handcraft and the power of the maker, narrating tales of desire, indulgence and deviation

It would be easy to assume that architect and Memphis Group founder Ettore Sottsass’ achievements as one of the pivotal creative minds of the 20th century would have seen him operating from a proverbial pedestal, yet his vast spectrum of work demonstrates otherwise. While famed for his role as leader and catalyst of 1980s Postmodernism, there is much to be learnt from inspecting the minutiae of his portfolio.

Juxtaposing the aesthetically-focused work he was producing from the early 1980s, one of Sottsass’ most well-known designs was the Valentine typewriter, created for Olivetti in 1969. Although function-led and somewhat reserved in comparison to his later works, the typewriter set the tone for the architect’s desire to transform the everyday experience with the unexpected, and almost superfluous, use of colour and modern materials.

Transcending the realms of architecture and design, Sottsass’ perspectives on play and experimentation elevated products made from the world’s most commonly-used materials into effigies of popular culture, both collectively and independently narrating tales of desire, indulgence and deviation from the norm. While Sottsass was intellectually and creatively brilliant, challenging the boundaries of definition and conformity was not without its psychological conflict. Commenting on his works in glass, which are celebrated in stunning new book Ettore Sottsass: The Glass, published by Skira, the architect considers his frustrations with not fitting into a labelled box. “I’ve tried to get away from the everyday object and sought to make Glass works with a capital G. Of course, that’s a dangerous approach, because I don’t want to be an artist, or a sculptor, but in the end the objects I produce look like glass sculptures, and yet they aren’t: they’re a mix that’s hard to fathom.” 

Sottsass was a man of many interests. While many architects of the 20th century thrived within a niche of their own making, the Italian visionary took his boundless creative ambition and applied it to anything he could reach. Testament to his hands-on approach to design, his body of work includes furniture, lighting, home objects, office machinery, buildings, interiors and glass. Sottsass and the Memphis Group were committed to making a political statement, bulldozing the class barriers in art and design with non-conformist philosophy. His works in glass are an ode to the beauty of handcraft, the power of the maker and the empowerment of manual skill. 

Sottsass died, aged 90, in 2007. His incredible career spanned more than six decades, with his focus shifting continually as new interests, themes and materials caught his attention, but the one medium he could never leave behind was glass. The architect began making Glass works (with a capital G, of course) in 1947 and continued to do so right up to his death. Ettore Sottsass: The Glass articulates, in abstraction, every corner of the architect’s mind, leaving plenty of room for the reader’s own subjective interpretation.

Ettore Sottsass: The Glass is out now, published by Skira.