memphis furniture in the Milwaukee museum of art Etorre Sottsass

Ettore Sottsass

Ettore Sottsass 1917-2007 was born in Innsbruck Austria and brought up in Turin, Italy, the son of a well-known architect Ettore Sottsass Snr. He was a 1939 graduate of the School of Architecture at the Politecnico di Torino. A prolific and imaginative architect and interior designer who designed ceramics, created sculpture, paintings, furniture, photography and jewellery.

In 1946 he opened his architectural practice and combined this with work as a designer. In 1958 he became Designer Consultant to the Olivetti Company creating the iconic Valentine Typewriter. According to the Design Museum’s Director Deyan Sudjic OBE in his book Etorre Sottsass and the Poetry of Things,

“In the revolutionary year of 1968, when Sottsass convinced Olivetti to manufacture a portable typewriter with a bright red body, named the ‘Valentine’, he suggested that this was a machine that was designed to keep poets company on lonely weekends in the country’.

Ettore was always involved throughout his life with, and part of, cutting edge ideas and activism.  It made perfect sense that as well as working with convention big business he was invited to become a member of the 1973-1875 Milanese experimental Global Tools Group, created by the Radical Architecture Movement.  A thread that runs through the career of Ettore Sottsass is no age barrier between collaborators, which might seem a strange comment but the 1970s was rife with ageism. He was part of Studio Alchymia a late 1970s collective of furniture makers whose members included Alessandro Mendini and Andrea Branzi. At this time the seeds were sown that led to the creation of the Memphis Group (said to be inspired by Bob Dylan’s song Memphis Blues). Sottsass was the founder member and was joined by Andrea Branzi (again Sottsass was considerably older as the typical group member was in their 20s). The Memphis group took everyone by surprise their designs were bold and entirely unconventional, today they pack as much of a punch as they did when they were first launched internationally. Some have pointed out that this was simply another expression of Sottsass’ mid-sixties experiments with shape, colour and design in a new way. He left four years later in 1985. He had by this time formed Sottsass Associati which he continued working in until he passed away in 2007

Iconic works include the Ultrafragola Mirrorlight, Valentine Portable Typewriter, Memphis Beverly Sideboard, Memphis Freemont Console, Memphis Alcore glass vase and the Memphis Ashoka lamp,

Amongst his Awards:

Compasso d’Oro / the Golden Compass 1959

Sir Micha Black Design Award 1999


Design Museum Work in Progress 2007 (the exhibition opened in September of that year Sottsass died in December)

Image: Memphis Furniture part of the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum Photo: Sailko CC BY 3.0

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Etorre Sottsass Memphis Group room

Image Zanone CC BY SA 3.0

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