Ettore Sottsass: The Master of “Bastard Design”

This article was taken from 032c Issue #27, “Raf Simons.”

At times utopian, at times hedonistic, the work of Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) can best be described by its light touch. As the designer himself once said: “If you have to tune into something as soft as history, there is no way you can do it using harsh measures.” A prisoner of war during WWII, Sottsass lived through hopes of postwar reconstruction, the illusions of industrialization, and the uncertain advent of the electronic landscape. It seems as if history had educated Sottsass as a cosmically detached filter of perception, a visionary who could help cool down events.

038 ES c 1944
Ettore Sottsass during World War II, circa 1944
418 glass for Mourmas
A glass piece for Ernest Mourmans, 2006
Elledue bed for Poltronova (Mobili grigi), 1970
329 ES India 1998
Sottsass lopunges in India, 1988.
The Factotum bookcase. designed in 1980.

Sottsass developed an interest in photography and painting before taking on practices in ceramics and industrial design. He considered himself an architect who made furniture. He also considered himself a product designer who made buildings. He found it easy to glide past the boundaries of genre, working to add an expressive layer onto the hyper-functional surfaces of modernism.

During his long partnership with the Italian manufacturer Olivetti, Sottsass defined a role for himself as a poetic agent of industry—a creator who operated in the spectrum between art and commercial manufacturing. Unlike his German counterpart Dieter Rams, whose work paid homage to Braun’s engineering, Sottsass approached design with a humanistic eye for what objects can communicate.

When asked by Olivetti to design Italy’s first computer in 1959, below, Sottsass set out to create a machine that accentuated the occult mystery of an unfamiliar technology. What resulted was the Elea, a mammoth console housed in polished aluminum that created a ghostly reflection of the operators who tended to its circuits. Sottsass’s design projected a certain drama – a feel for the fantastical – that became a defining feature during the advent of the electronic landscape.


Ten years later, Sottsass carried this energy over to his iconic red portable typewriter. The Valentine was an alluring anti-machine. It was designed to be used anywhere but the office, in the unformed frontiers of the everyday. An object centered on personal empowerment rather than the glorification of function, the Valentine typewriter presupposed the pop verve that has come to surround today’s consumer electronics.

Sottsass’s radical break with Olivetti and industrial design came in the form of Memphis. Heralding itself as “The New International Style,” Memphis’s refreshingly chaotic vision turned into a success that transcended design. It captured a moment in thinking, an impulse to graft something heterogeneous and counter-rational onto the unflinching mold of modernism. Sottsass described Memphis as a “boiling cauldron of mutations” that produced “bastard objects” through a style that traversed metaphor and utopia. It was an experiment that dared to flirt with kitsch and pastiche, freely colliding styles and transporting vernacular materials such as plastic laminate from the kitchen to the living room. It is a style that is now ubiquitously invoked in today’s design, from textiles to objects. Yet as is usual with such cases, the imitators tend forsake the inventors. After all, when introduced to the public in Milan in 1981, Memphis was so iconoclastic that it incited an actual riot.

Images taken from Sottsass, published by Phaidon, 2014. This article was taken from 032c Issue #27: “Raf Simons,” more issues available from the 032c store

Architecture 40Modernism 5Interiors 1
Ettore Sottsass

Published in

Issue #27 — Winter 2014/2015Raf Simons


As network technology continues to pour itself into every facet of existence, we now find ourselves in a new state of adolescence, a landscape filled with grey areas and black holes—stretching, contracting, and continually shapeshifting. This issue takes a look at those who have made themselves at home in this protean terrain, embracing the ambiguity and uni-sexuality of the unknown.

“The past is not romantic to me. The future is romantic to me,” says RAF SIMONS, a designer whose menswear label has become an oracle of its own pre-Internet notion of beauty and freedom. With a practice rooted in the site specificity of IRL subculture and the iconoclasm of the 20th century avant-garde, Raf Simons has turned the charged ambivalence of youth into a comprehensive design methodology. Our cover dossier 1995-2015: A Raf Simons Retrospective celebrates the 20th anniversary of the label with an investigation into the underpinnings a menswear label that seems to exist in a perpetual state of youthful becoming. Alongside an extensive interview with the designer himself, PIERRE ALEXANDRE DE LOOZ’s profile on Raf Simons charts the ascension of the enigmatic figure behind the label. Meanwhile photographer WILLY VANDERPERRE and stylist OLIVIER RIZZO take us deep inside the Raf Simons archive for a study of the archetypes that have spanned across all 40 of Simons’ collections.

In a context where information flows freely across platforms, RICHARD TURLEY has operated through his own brand of “lazy modernism”. Widely known through his work at Bloomberg BusinessWeek as a master of the 21st century magazine cover, the graphic designer has moved on to the world of television, where he plans to revive the anarchy that once defined MTV in a much-changed media landscape.

What does the World Wide Web’s compression geo-physical boundaries entail for the future of architecture? 032c’s Carson Chan speaks with ANDREAS ANGELIDAKIS, an architect who has taken the Greece’s economic downturn as grounds to create buildings that live online as networked environments. Operating on the opposite end of the economic spectrum, the Beijing-based architecture firm BAM navigates the dizzying pace of Chinese real estate development by creating spaces that appear as a surreal Tumblr of forms and images.

“From a global point of view, the idea of economic growth is a failed, worn-out Western fetish.” As tensions between the East and West escalate with the rise of ISIS, Indian novelist PANKAJ MISHRA reflects on the false promises of the Enlightenment.

“Things are held together with all this blurry material, which we cannot see or measure. That’s interesting for me, how I approach these empty, in-between spaces. Without them, there would be nothing to connect it all together.” Georgian-born artist ANDRO WEKUA’s sculptures operate within the space of the unknowable. Operating through an amalgamation of memories, dreams, and databases, they attempt to chart the black holes that exist within the network.

At a time when Y2K-era communication had forged a new type of mega-celebrity, Swiss journalist TOM KUMMER shocked the German-speaking world when it was discovered that his Hollywood interviews were an elaborate hoax. The interviews, which have Courtney Love speculating on hyperreality and Pamela Anderson discussing William Gibon’s Neuromancer, have been translated into English for the first time by Pablo Larios.

Poet, conceptual artist, and digital pioneer KENNETH GOLDSMITH takes us on a tour through his library of books and records.


In addition, this issue’s SELECT features an original commission by artist Cali Thornhill DeWitt, an interview with APC founder Jean Touitou, the rebirth of the Ferrari F-1 Modulo concept car, a look at the lifetime of Ettore Sottsass, Gosha Rubchinskiy’s tour through Crimean skateboard culture, and much much more.