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Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007)

Artist Ettore Sottsass, a key figure in the development of 20th century design, was born in 1917 in Austria and raised in Turin, Italy. He attended the Politecnico di Torino, graduating in 1939 with a degree in architecture. Sottsass served in the Italian army in World War II, during which time he was captured, imprisoned, and sent to a labor camp in Yugoslavia. After the war, he returned to Italy and began working with his architect father (also named Ettore Sottsass), creating modernist redesigns of buildings that had been destroyed during the war.

In 1947, the younger Sottsass founded his own design studio in Milan, where he worked in a wide range of forms and media-- from ceramics, painting and sculpture to photography, jewelry and interior design. Sottsass married writer/journalist Fernanda Pivano in 1949. In 1956 they traveled to New York City, where Sottsass worked briefly in the office of George Nelson, a celebrated industrial designer considered one of the founders of American Modernism.

In 1957, Sottsass and his wife returned to Italy, where he found work as an artistic consultant for the contemporary furniture producer Poltronova. The following year he joined Olivetti, where he developed the Elea 9003, the first Italian mainframe computer, earning him the prestigious Compasso d'Oro industrial design award. At Olivetti in the ‘60s, Ettore Sottsass built a name for himself as a designer who reimagined the modern office environment. By merging unexpected color and form in utilitarian items of office furniture and equipment, Sottsass blended functionality with the visual flair of pop culture. Today, Sottsass is celebrated for the iconic Valentine typewriter, which he created in 1969 and is considered a breakthrough in 20th century design. Light, portable, and famously available in fire-engine red, the typewriter is as much a statement piece as a piece of office equipment.

Sottsass is perhaps best known for creating, together with other notable artists, the Italian architecture and design collective, The Memphis Group, famed for producing postmodern furniture and designs that blend Art Deco and Pop Art aesthetics into singular and striking creations. Founded in Milan, Italy in 1982, and named after a Bob Dylan song (“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”), the Memphis group aimed to produce furniture and decorative objects that stood in contrast to the austere and less approachable nature of designs by modernist makers like Mies van der Rohe and Milo Baughman. With a catalog packed to bursting with dramatic and exaggerated designs and a prism of eye-popping colors, it’s safe to say that they succeeded in this effort.

In the summer of 2017, the designer was the subject of a retrospective titled “Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical” at the Met Breuer in New York. His work can be found in the permanent collections of art and design museums around the world, including the Design Museum in London, the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, the Brooklyn Museum, the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum in DC, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

Ettore Sottsass sold at Rago

Ettore Sottsass

Memphis Carlton bookcase, 1981, $26,250

Ettore Sottsass

Bitossi/Miribili Menta totem, Italy, des. 1965-69, $23,750

Ettore Sottsass

Bitossi/Miribili Clair de Lune totem, 1985, $18,750

Ettore Sottsass

Memphis Carlton bookcase, 1981, $10,625

Ettore Sottsass

Memphis Milano Casablanca bookcase, 1981, $8,750

Ettore Sottsass

Rinovel umbrella stand, 1950s, $6,200

Ettore Sottsass

Swid Powell silverplate/brass candlesticks, 1980s, $5938

Ettore Sottsass

Arredoluce single-arm floor lamp, $4,880