Ettore Sottsass

Austria 1917-2007

Wherever he went, Ettore Sottsass carried a camera to photograph anything that caught his eye. Doors, temples, kitchens, billboards: nothing escaped him. This was a man who took 1,780 photographs on a twelve day trip to South America, who toyed with publishing a book consisting of pictures of walls and for years photographed every hotel room in which he had slept with a woman.

Born in Innsbruck in his mother’s native Austria in 1917, Ettore Jr. was marked out as an architect from an early age. His parents moved to Turin in 1929 because it boasted the best architecture faculty in Italy and Ettore Sr. wanted his son to study there. Although he also loved painting, Ettore Jr. acquiesced to his father’s wishes and gained an architecture degree in 1939.

In 1958 he accepted a demanding consultancy role for the newly created electronics division of Olivetti, the Italian industrial group. Sottsass was hired by Adriano Olivetti, the founder, to work alongside his son, Roberto. Together with the engineer, Mario Tchou, they created a series of landmark products which were technically innovative and aesthetically appealing thanks to Sottsass’ love of pop art and Beat culture. They won the prestigious 1959 Compasso d’Oro with the Elea 9003, the first Italian calculator, and revolutionised typewriter design with Olivetti’s first electronic model, the Tekne, in an elegantly angular Sottsass case.

Throughout the 1960s, Sottsass travelled in the US and India while remaining a central figure in the Italian avant garde and designing more landmark products for Olivetti culminating in the bright red, poppy plastic 1970 Valentine typewriter which he described as "a biro among typewriters". Although Sottsass later dismissed the Valentine as "too obvious, a bit like a girl wearing a very short skirt and too much make-up, it is still seen as an iconic ‘pop’ product. His furniture was equally influential: notably the mid-1960s "superbox" closets in stripey plastic laminate developed for Polotronova. In 1972, Sottsass’ mobile, multi-functional fibreglass furniture unit was the toast of the Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibition at MoMA, New York.