January 3rd, 2008


A Milano, il papa di PoMo è morto!

I wouldn't normally be so affected by the death of such an old man. But Ettore Sottsass -- who died in Milan on Monday, aged 90 -- wasn't just any old man; he was Postmodernism's most important industrial designer; the Pope of Postmodernism. Born in 1917 -- the era of the Futurists -- Sottsass lived long enough to out-future the future.

A design consultant at Olivetti between 1958 and 1980, he's the man who made the bright red Valentine typewriter you can see on the cover of Takako Minekawa's Roomic Cube album. He's the man who founded design group Memphis Milano when he was already in his 60s, a group which made the boldest, zappiest, zingiest Postmodern forms of the 1980s. Memphis made the exuberant, chunky, blotchy Carlton bookshelf (I picked it up as a motif for my Classicism and Atrocity essay in 2002). Sottsass was the subject of a tribute track ("Memphis Milano") on Haruomi Hosono's brilliant 1982 album Coincidental Music which, in his honour, I'd like to play for you today:

Haruomi Hosono: Memphis Milano (1982) (mp3 file, 10 mins 27 secs, 9.6MB)

Ettore trained as an architect, and architects bloom famously late and live famously long. At 90, he seemed just to be getting into his stride. Whereas peers like Joe Colombo perished too early to see their Space Age designs celebrated by a future age which had somewhat lost its youthful pizzaz, Sottsass became a sort of "living national treasure" (for Italy, naturally, although he was born in Austria and sometimes seems to have been valued most in Japan). In advanced old age he was still advanced, and seemed to be celebrated more than ever. In Trieste right now you can see "I Want To Know Why", a big exhibition of his work whose opening he was still well enough to attend in December. "I would like the visitors to leave crying," he said at the time. "That is, with emotion."

Sottsass went out on the crest of a career wave. In 2006 the LA County Museum mounted the first major US survey of his work. In spring 2007 the Design Museum in London had a big show dedicated to him, with the optimistic (and very Sottsassian) title "Work in Progress". Here's a Vernissage TV skim-round video:

I have a short article in the current edition of US design magazine ID which actually mentions Sottsass. It's about German design company Sieger. "While designers at this company known for its sumptuous bathroom fittings don't yet soak in saunas or walk around the office in towels, they're free to recharge spiritually in a specially-designed meditation gazebo out in the sculpture garden, a gift from Ettore Sottsass." The issue is titled New and Notable, and that's what Sottsass, the playful Pope of PoMo, continued to be, even at 90.