Ettore Sottsass

In 1972, when Ettore Sottsass was invited to participate in the landmark show “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape,” his project undertook nothing less than the complete reorientation of popular attitudes toward domestic space. Sottsass chose to work with conventional furnishings or appliances intended for kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms, placing these elements into container modules fitted with wheels. His presentation took the form of nine fiberglass containers, an accompanying text, and exhibits illustrating possible uses for the modules.

Five of the original nine containers and the displays that accompanied them were shown in this recent exhibition. The catalogue from 1972 (now a collector’s item) was also on view, giving visitors an opportunity to read Sottsass’ companion essay. In this text the artist addressed the various sociocultural implications of his designs, and stated that his goal was to promote a flexible lifestyle through the environments he created. The containers’ plain, even brutal or raw appearance was intended to discourage vanity on the part of their owners; the resulting freedom from materialistic values was intended to sensitize users to their environment, emotions, and interpersonal relationships, while the neutrality of the containers also resisted specific ethnic or social connotations.

Although a utopian undercurrent was present in many of the other contributions to the 1972 show, Sottsass looked toward a more complete social transformation. Whereas other designers used catchy colors and suggestively biomorphic forms, Sottsass’ containers are essentially uniform, with only a hint of color penetrating their dull gray husks. The closet model contains an orange light, for example, while a soothing atmosphere is generated by a blue lamp and uni- Stephen Willats, Multiple Clothing. Free Expression (detail), 1992, mixed media. Installation view. formly colored Plexiglas sheets attached to the back of a container designed for reading or resting. In addition to the wardrobe, retreat, seat/bed, storage, and toilet containers that were shown in Cologne, Sottsass created kitchen utensils, shelves, and writing-desk systems—even a jukebox. The containers can be joined with tubes that facilitate the transference of water and electricity.

Sottsass’ project was meant to serve merely as a prototype: in his text, he noted that he was more concerned with posing the idea of radical transformation than with immediately realizing his social model. He envisioned a society in which it would be possible to alter one’s daily habitat—even transport it to new places—much as one combines and recombines articles of clothing. It is interesting to note that while Sottsass’ modules reflect the art of the period during which they were created (through their reductive form and color and the abdication of a personal signature), they also prefigure the furniture-related installations of a younger generation of artists.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Translated from the German by Vivian Heller.