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Ettore Sottsass, 1997

SURVIVAL GUIDE:
ETTORE SOTTSASS
with Marina Isola

It’s hard to believe that the youthful Ettore Sottsass is really 80-years-old. And when one hears about all of the things the Italian architect and industrial designer has done, all of the people and places he knows, and sees just how active he still is today, it’s truly amazing. Sottsass has designed everything from plastic beds for Poltronova in the ’60s and the first Olivetti portable typewriter to ceramic sculptures and controversial Memphis furniture.

Sottsass survived fascism, wartime imprisonment, and a near-fatal glandular disease. He traveled to India befgore it was fashionable, and dropped out for years to camp in the Spanish Pyrenees. He befriended Charles Eames, the Hells’s Angels, and the owner of Esprit Clothing.

We met with Sottsass in his Milan studio, nestled amongst the boutiques of A0rmani and Versace, where forty-plus employees keep the place humming. Although deeply spiritual, he is also highly opinionated, but in the old world European way, and he always finds time to answer questions and explain his philosophy.

LIFE AS A COMEDY

We Italians are a people who consider life as a comedy, and not a plan. For instance, in Italy, the law is a vague concept. The law is a suggestion for the Italian, not an order. Once, I was in Naples looking for a restaurant and had to ask directions, so I asked a guy on the street. He said “at the next intersection, make a right.” Then he stops a second and adds, “It’s a bit of a one way street.” So you see? It’s “kind of one way,” but not completely. It’s not like it’s the end of your life or anything.


FROM THE ROMAN EMPIRE TO CONSUMER SOCIETY

The 1950s was a very important period for me. My first trip to the U.S. was in ’56 and I was leaving an Italy that did not yet have a consumer industry, while in the U.S. it was already there. In Italy there had been debates in the ’30s, not just intellectual, but political ones, too. But whomever was in favor of these industrial developments was considered anti-fascist and the fascists valued the heroic tradition. They wanted to go back to the Roman Empire. There were violent arguements between architects who wanted to use the cement architrave and those who wanted to continue to use the arch exclusively, because that was considered a Roman invention! So in America I was impressed by the possibility of standardization — things like the fact that all the doors in public places opened outwards. My own attitude changed with regards to what exactly constitutes an object or product. But the more one produced mechanically, the more one lost a certain concentration on the object, which had been an integral part of the old way of designing. Before when you wanted a chair, you would go to a carpenter, and you could tell him how you wanted it done, and a certain attention and concentration on behalf of everybody was dedicated to that object.


COMPUTERS

In 1959, I designed Olivetti’s ELEA 9003, an early computer the size of a room, with fuses and everything. It was really an experience, but it was like sailing without a compass. We had no idea what computers were going to become ... as a matter of fact, we did not even really know what they were!


THE VALENTINE TYPEWRITER

With Valentine, Olivetti wanted to change the way they sold portable typewriters. In the ’60s, all these manual typewriters started coming in from Japan, and cost a fraction of the European models. Based on those machines, there was very little to reduce — they were already stripped down as far as technology. But Olivetti thought to do an even simpler machine, with only capital letters, no bell, and so on. So I wanted to design “the Bic pen of typewriters” for a mass market. I thought to make it in a very cheap plastic — the soft kind we make buckets with — and it was bright red and kind of pop, with a sense of humor, not at all aristocratic. But Olivetti got scared. They kept the design, but went back to ABS plastic, which is more expensive. They thought my version was too cheap and tacky.


TACKINESS AND TASTE

People in the center of the city always think the suburbs mean bad taste, but they don’t understand that new ideas of good taste come from the suburbs or “the streets,” and not from the center. Fashion, for instance, is designed by hookers before it is designed by fashion designers. They are the ones with mini skirts, high heels, and plunging necklines. These weren’t invented by Armani or Versace. However, there is a tendency, even in lower classes, to imitate the habits of the upper classes, like drinking Spumanti because it’s bubbly and it has a gold label. But now even tackiness has become too sophisticated.


THE CITY OF THE FUTURE

It would be nice to imagine a city based on the ideology of mobility and not of static hierarchy. We have a project for a city near Seoul, Korea, where they are building a huge airport which bridges two islands, and we have made some proposals for the towns surrounding the airport. Right now there is tremendous competition amongst Asian cities to conquer the commercial routes. So we have tried to create a reasonable urban density, because Seoul’s is frightening — five people per square meter. We would like to avoid creating social ghettos, like having all the banks on one side and all the blue collar workers on the other, and cultural activities on yet another. We would like to create a continuously varied fabric of activities. It’s not the old European model. There is no center with a Duomo circled by banks and expensive stores which are surrounded by another circle. It’s a new model based on the presence of transportation and acceleration. But because it’s a city which is starting from scratch, the danger is to build a city which begins from a fixed ideology, which is what happened with Brasilia. So I think the only way to handle such a project is to have a soft touch and to explore the micro possibilities and try to solve some of the little problems. I don’t expect to resolve all the problems in the history of humanity in one fell swoop.


THE LANDSCAPE OF COLOR

Color doesn’t exist for me; there are only colored materials. For instance, the ones that come out of computers are not colors with a capital “C” — they are computer colors. Like many Italians, I don’t think that there is a single solution, or a definitive answer. But in America they have tried several color systems, like Pantone, which can be very useful to communicate with. But in reality, you are never traveling in the landscape of color, you a traveling in a specific landscape. It may be the blue of Spain or it may be the blue of Germany.


PICTURE WINDOWS

There is this tradition in America — which is sometimes heavy-handed and it’s now all over the world — to always have these enormous windows facing a lawn or a forest. I don’t know, maybe it’s like a pioneer thing about wanting to feel close to nature, but I don’t think a house is just about that. It should represent the interior situation, not the exterior one. You may be doing different things or experiencing different moods, and a curtain is not going to be enough to create a filter. The house itself — the flow of it, the floors, the walls — must accommodate these different states


THE PHILIP JOHNSON STORY

Clearly he is a man of great class and a great intellectual force. He also imagines the history of architecture as a constant voyage and not as a fixed ideology. So as the story changes, he has this great capacity to update himself.


A GOLF COURSE IN CHINA

Right now we are doing a very large golf club near Zhaoqing, which is pretty remote, like three hours by boat on a river and another hour by car. It’s a beautiful place, hilly, and, up to now, completely uninhabited. We are building a whole complex — a hotel, restaurants, and homes for some governors of Hong Kong, who are Chinese. We tried not to lose touch with the tradition of the place and with local materials — the roofs are in green ceramic tile, just like they use throughout the region. The biggest problem has been with construction technology. We couldn’t plan anything too advanced because of the limitations there. The labor had to come from the outside, and sometimes the workers would just get sick of everything and leave.


A MORE INTIMATE ARCHITECTURE

All of American architecture, to me, is very strange. Architects in America have great power and they have all of America at their disposal — a vast landscape, every sort of material and they’re respected intellectual figures. It’s all available. In Italy, for instance, we have only one skyscraper, the Gio Ponti building in Milan. The architecture of skyscrapers is a whole field that we Italians cannot even imagine; instead we must always picture a more intimate architecture. Perhaps our landscape is more sophisticated than America’s, which is more grand, so we have to be more careful about our landscape than Americans need to be about theirs.


BUILDING FOR PEOPLE

Michael Graves, or his school, so to speak, considers architecture as an event of originality, as a one-of-a kind sculpture, and not a place. It’s very disappointing to me. This newness, this originality for its own sake, these architectural solipsisms in which architecture becomes a mannerist form of invention. Rather than ask whether a skyscraper should have a straight top or a curved top or whatever the fuck, I try to understand people: What is family? What is a social group? What is loneliness, desperation, an emotional crisis? My very modest rapport with architecture is to design things which are useful to people, which can console them, and keep them company.


SURVIVAL

We try to distract ourselves as much as we can, the fastest we can, instead of trying to understand what is happening around us, or think. I come from the mountains. It’s a place of silence and existential fear. The basic problem is an existential one. It’s a comparison between the macro space of the universe and the micro space of our world. Of course you never reach an answer. That’s not important. It is a psychological state. I am for an introverted life, and a feeling that life is a fragile — very fragile — event from morning to night.

© index magazinegelatin1
Susan Cianciolo by Rosalie Knox, 1999

 

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