PRINT March 1986

A Note on Ettore Sottsass

IF MARIANNE BRANDT, DESIGNER at the metalwork shop at the Bauhaus, were to peer down at us today from some spun-steel cloud in Modern heaven, she might be mystified to observe the commodification of art so widely discussed as a critical cultural problem. To her it was a shining ideal: a mission critical to art’s important role in modern life. Each lampshade and ashtray that she issued was a courier charged with carrying a spiritual message to a material world: the idea that, as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy wrote, “to be a user of the machine is to be of the spirit of this century. It has replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras.”

Of the urgency of transmitting the new social and spiritual message that integrated the machine, the arts, and crafts, Brandt and her colleagues had little doubt. Ruskin’s campaign in the mid 19th century to revive the imprint of the hand had served only to eulogize it. To shrink further from action in the Modern field would, Gropius wrote, “leave behind a mortifying testimony to the spiritual fall from grace of our generation.” Elsewhere he wrote:

Let us create a new guild of craftsmen, with out the class snobbery that tries to erect a haughty barrier between artist and crafts man. Let us conceive consider and create together the new building of the future that will bring all into one single integrated creation: architecture, painting and sculpture rising to heaven out of the hand s of a million craftsmen, the crystal symbol of the new faith of the future.

It was to design more than to architecture that the mission was entrusted to open up the “total work of art,” to push the Modern idea toward realization. For who knew how long it might take for architecture to reach critical mass, for individual buildings to crystallize the environment into the faceted Modern world of glass, steel, and space? Design enabled us to visualize this world immediately. You could call up the Salvation Army to pack up the dusty furniture from whatever room you happened to be in, set down one or two new chairs, and transport yourself to the Modern world.

In 1969, you could walk into the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and find yourself transport ed to yet another world. The occasion was an exhibition devoted to the office equipment and graphic design that had made Olivetti a lead ing force in the industrial production of the Modern esthetic. When you reached the last room of the show it became dramatically clear that something else was going on. There, hundreds of Olivetti’s latest product, a red plastic typewriter named the Valentine, designed by Ettore Sottsass, Jr., were piled up in stacks that reached the Louvre’s high ceilings. Slide projectors flashed monumental images of models dressed in high-’60s gear, each posed with her Valentine on a rocky seaside cliff, in a meadow, on a train. Except for its bright-red plastic casing, the Valentine was exactly the same piece of machinery that lay enshrined—as the Platonic essence of form and function—in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But with its flashing lights, its pouting models, its stacks of sealed cartons scaling the walls, the Valentine room subverted the idea of functionalism and unveiled with a flourish a new idea about design that had been brewing for more than 40 years.

An exhibition on the theme of corporate production had cast off its “office” trappings and turn ed itself into a discotheque whirl of corporate promotion. You could throw up your arms in disgust that the money changers had invaded the temples of both work and art. Or you could use the installation as a clue to understand that Sottsass had recognized and acted upon the idea that Modern design had been chiefly directed toward the transmission of an image. He had, in fact, created an esthetic of distribution to replace that of Modern production. Sottsass accepted as a given that it is in the nature of design to propagate messages through out society, just as it is in the nature of marble to support weight and of glass to admit light. His contribution was to introduce feedback from the distribution system into the design process. He recognized that people make choices with the senses as well as with common sense.

For Sottsass the designed object is not the advance runner for the architecture of the future but a tool to provoke the present into announcing its own logic. In the ’70s, he asked the designed object what it wanted to be: it wanted to be a fad. It wanted to be free of the twin dumb bells of history and Modernism’s cold objective truth. It wanted to cut a nice figure—not the figure that lies reduced to its basics but the turned-out figure that darts ahead up the street, flashes for a moment in the shop window, and vanishes around the corner. The object wanted lots of clothes, to look infinitely various and utterly distinctive at the same time. It wanted to know where Sottsass had been that day, to hear all about what he’d experienced through the senses, to receive the imprint not of the hand but of the receptive eye, of, to quote Sottsass, “textures like the grit and the mosaics of public conveniences in the underground stations of big cities, like the tight wire netting of suburban fences, or like the spongy paper of government account books and detective stories.” It wanted colors “like those of the chair in the dairy under my house where they sell eggs, margarine, bottles of mineral water, miscellaneous detergents, spaghetti and liquorice and, naturally, soft cheeses and milk.” It wanted light up above that was delighted to be shining, that knew when to go lightly and when to talk heavy but under no circumstances would consent to act like some drudge on the graveyard shift in a factory. Above all it wanted lots of attention: cut flowers, changed daily; flashbulbs; showrooms. And it wanted someone to tell it gently when its time was up, to go gracefully, to retire comfortably.

When Sottsass introduced textured surfaces in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the intention was to erode the hard surfaces of Modern design, to eat away like bacteria or worms at the dogmatic idea of absolute form. Everyone knew there was nothing left to say or do but refine old prototypes and rummage around in the dustbins of history and vernacular culture. The point of faking a new look, such as that promoted under the name Memphis, was to get out of the rut of the past and explore at high speed the process of passing from faking it to believing it. It was an exercise in cosmic bootstrapping, the eruption of a vacuum that took faith in its own energy and so went on to produce light, color, and form and the channels to transmit them. Physicists now believe this is how the universe was born.

In the “Barbaric Place” designed for these pages a darker view of urban experience has appeared. It sees pattern in the breakup of pattern, in the erosion of Cartesian rationality that was thought to ensure a harmonious Modern future but that ended in violent acts that pulled the city to pieces. The patterns that simultaneously animate and destroy the surfaces are not mere urban collage; they are neural event s that bypass the rational mind, like the patterns of light and color that you see when you close your eyes and press your fingers against the sockets. We rub our eyes like this when we get bored, in church or by sanctimoniousness of all kinds; or we rub them when confronted by a new vision that we can’t yet take in. In the Barbaric City we rub our eyes on awaken ing in a world where Euclidean geometry has retreated back into the bra in, where it resided before geometers insisted nature functioned according to its laws. Through the window of the “Barbaric Interior,” and in the Francesco Clemente painting quoted on its walls, Sottsass frames a view of nature in the morning light before possibilities have frozen into formulas.

Herbert Muschamp writes a column on architecture for Artforum.