A Glimpse Into The Visionary Brain Of Design Hero Ettore Sottsass

Ettore Sottsass, father of Memphis, drew his autobiography in a sketchbook–and it’s a trip.

Italy has no shortage of design legends, but one in particular has been hogging the spotlight recently: Ettore Sottsass. The architect and industrial designer, who died in 2007, would have turned 100 this year, but looking around at the abundance of products, furniture, textiles, and graphics today that riff on his work, you’d think he was alive and monopolizing every available commission.


[Photo: courtesy Phaidon]
Sottsass was incredibly prolific. He trained as an architect, became famous for his contributions to Olivetti (“I worked 60 years of my life and it seems the only thing I did is this fucking red machine. And it came out a mistake,” he once said about designing the typewriter company’s iconic Valentine model), fathered the collective Memphis in the 1980s, and designed everything from experimental living concepts to jewelry and decorative objects. But one of his best works is a Cliff’s Notes to his own life. In 1993, he sketched an illustrated autobiography, which is published in a new edition of Ettore Sottsass (Phaidon, 2017) and appears in Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical, the Met Breuer’s first design exhibition.

There’s plenty of scholarship to help us understand Sottsass, but in his sketchbook he provided a handy guide to people who want to get a snapshot of who he was and how he saw the world. Check out a few highlights from the wild autobiography below. Spoiler: It’s pretty damn poetic.

He Is A Designer Of “Small Architectures”

“I am an architect, but mostly I do design (I mean so-called industrial design), which means machines, computers, furniture, objects, lamps, ceramics, glass, silver, stone, etc. All of my designs look like small architectures.”

[Image: courtesy Phaidon]

He’s A Romantic

“I like girls and ladies very much. Once, in a very, very beautiful June day in Tuscany, I was lying on the grass under an immense, beautiful tree.  There was a young girl with me with a yellow dress and I tried to kiss her, but there was a hole in the ground and I fell into the hole. It was a very ridiculous event. She smiled very gently.”

He Respects Craft

“I like to design objects in glass and stay in Murano (that island near Venice) and watch the five men (fathers of many children) blowing the glass, helping each other in a silent, metaphysical ballet. They all wear tennis shoes.”

[Image: courtesy Phaidon]

He Likes To Travel

“I like India because there, sometimes, life is in my hands. I can see the dead being brought to the banks of the river to be burned. I also can see peasants with all their goods just exposed on the ground: mountains of red pepper, mountains of orange flowers, and mountains of very long zucchini. I can see old men dying slowly on the steps of temples and children sitting nearby and waiting for the sun to disappear.”

[Image: courtesy Phaidon]

He’s A Sensitive, Introspective Soul

“I think that to [be] an architect you have to become very gentle, very calm, and extremely sensitive about life.

“As one can see from my portrait, I am no longer young. In fact, now I am old. As many old people, I need a lot of light and very good air, but mostly I need deserts around, so two months ago I went to a desert called Tassili-N’Ajjer, south of Algeria. Like an anchorite, I slept on the sand under millions of stars. The experiences of my life, maybe needed to be related to the planet and less to the people.”

Of course, an autobiography is highly selective and leaves out a lot of detail. But for the full, deeper story head to the Met Breuer or flip through Ettore Sottsass (Phaidon, 2017).


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.