Ettore Sottsass

Ettore Sottsass (1917–2007) is best known for founding the Memphis group, the “coup de théâtre”—as his wife and biographer Barbara Radice described it—that shook the design world in the 1980s. But at the Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture, it was an earlier and more specific object by the Italian architect and designer that was on display: the Superbox Cabinet, several variations of which were developed between 1965 and 1967. Titled “We Were Exuberant and Still Had Hope,” the show formed the third episode of the institution’s investigation into the twentieth-century avant-gardes, following an exhibition on the theme of depression (psychological or economic) and one on the Saint Petersburg avant-garde, 1985–95. Although referring to Sottsass’s own reflection on his work of the ’50s and ’60s, today—and especially in the context of the very odd object that is the Superbox—these words sounded almost like an excuse, a rationalization for the creation of this minimalist monolith that was never brought into commercial production and almost never exhibited.

The work is simply an oblong closet on a white base, coated in brightly colored, striped plastic laminate. Yet the Superbox is ambiguous, clouding any conventional distinctions between design and art. This ontological instability was underlined by showing the work at Marres, a patrician house turned into an art space. Here, three original prototypes of the piece, which were created for the exhibition “Miljö för a ny planet” (Landscape for a New Planet) at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm in 1969, were shown together with a monumental ceramic altar of the same period. Some fluorescent tubes . la Dan Flavin also appeared in the installation, along with a constant smell of incense—oblique references to the Superbox’s initial staging and, presumably, to Sottsass’s encounters with Indian and American cultures.

In India, Sottsass was confronted with what he called a “culture of objects”—that is, a profound awareness of an object as both functional and symbolic rather than as mere commodity. For the designer, this idea stood in stark contrast to the conception of the object in the US, where consumption reigned and objects were casually used, misused, and replaced, so he decided to position the Superbox in the center of the space, thus demanding that the user acknowledge its ritualistic function in domestic life. Now, “dropped into the cosmos,” as Sottsass expressed it, the Superbox became a sort of spatial pièce de résistance, transforming its direct environment into a void and forcing the consumer, or, now, the viewer to become explicitly aware of its existence. The Superbox, then, is at once material and immaterial, rational and irrational.

The latter paradox also applies to Brazil’s modernist capital, Brasília, as Cristina Ricupero argued in an accompanying leaflet. Along with her, artist and designer Paul Elliman and designer Guy Keulemans provided “notes” to Sottsass’s Superbox. Keulemans’s Objects for Atheists, Superunfoldedbox, 2009, comprising different kinds of cardboard posters that function as a DIY kit, turned the institution’s second floor into a playful cityscape of ill-shaped miniature Superboxes. Mass-produced, touchable, light, and disposable, they were in complete contrast with the originals downstairs. The young designer clearly broke with the Superbox’s sacral staging, directly invoking the conditions of consumption. At the same time, the work illustrated the promise of an entirely designable society, with the participation of the viewer—but not without an exuberance of its own.

Saskia van der Kroef