Written by: Diyana Jailani, 11 February 2022
The way I came across Ettore Sottsass’ work was, I think inevitable. I had actually been questioning for a while why furniture design isn’t as prominent in Singapore as it is overseas. Many overseas households invest in creating their own furniture from scratch; whether built in or stand-alone. But it seems that in Singapore, more and more homeowners approach interior designers who in turn work closely with carpenters to create a specific ambience in a home that serves the functional and visual needs of its inhabitants.
Sottsass’ work is however, a contradiction of this industry. He is known for his radical
vision in his work, which influenced a whole generation of designers that shaped the early nineties’ aesthetic. Fun and quirky patterns, bright colours and a whimsical feel made up the foundation of Sottsass’ most popular contemporary design group. Appropriately named Memphis when its young, aspiring designers listened to a night of Bob Dylan records. This whimsical yet down-to-earth sentiment goes a way of describing the group as a whole; it is more than just an aesthetic or style, but rather an attitude towards how they approached design.
Keep in mind that Sottsass approached his peak during the boom of the IT industry – which had bulky, serious and grey designs and all the more, plained in comparison to his work. The most thought-provoking excerpt I’ve found from Sottsass himself was this:
“It may be that contemporary society, precisely because of these mechanisms of accelerated communication is accelerating on all sides towards a consumption of existence that is conditioned by the necessity of industry, and may continually need spectacle, and therefore creativity... It may well be that a humanity will be born for which life or existence, is permanently a spectacle.” – Ettore Sottsass.
To say the least, Sotsass’ words are not as shocking. What’s shocking is that this interview was conducted in the early 2000s. Accurately enough, he had predicted the future of the 21st century where it is now not uncommon for young influencers to purchase fast fashion from cheap online websites to post ‘reviews’ on social media. It is not uncommon to see the next wave of technological products look exactly the same as the versions before it, with minimal changes made just for these large companies to call them the ‘new and latest’ and still be received virally across consumers of all ages. Design has been belittled to the beck and call of consumerism behaviour; the repurposing of old design and calling it new for the sake of it.
"I hate the word creativity because it is a word invented on Madison Avenue by advertisers.” – Ettore Sottsass.
Across the board, the Memphis group went against the design norms of their era. Their work was largely geared towards wonder, excitement and humorous laughter in response to their quizzical shapes and forms. Their vision became known for its very human element that stood out in a post-industrial era. I believe that this was also the key towards Sottsass’ most famous invention; the Olivetti Valentine typewriter. He had created it to become a tool for writers, to be able to write anywhere they are. It was made portable and lightweight due to its plastic case and had an iconic red which he had hoped would inspire its users. However, when Olivetti introduced it (minus the plastic case) to the market, the Valentine typewriter became a fashion accessory instead. Though he gained fame for this specific product, Sottsass himself does not recollect a ‘happy’ memory of it.
This incident is a true example of what his work had been subjected to, and what many present-day designers face. Though they may have visions of creating products, furniture pieces etc that would serve a fixed purpose and be easily accessible, the ugly face of the industry and its consumers may just turn this vision against them.