A Polymathic Italian Designer, with Muses and Friends

July 26, 2017

By Roberta Smith


Ettore Sottsass. You can’t always live comfortably with his eccentric furniture, but you can’t write the history of late 20th-century art without it. On the 100th anniversary of his birth and only a decade since his death in 2007, the Milanese maestro best known for his red Olivetti portable typewriter and as the guru of the revolutionary postmodern design group Memphis remains a magnificent irritant and an exemplar of originality.

Unsurprisingly, “Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical” at the Met Breuer has a combative air. You may argue your way through it, and also take issue with some of its contextual artworks — this show is nearly half non-Sottsass — but it is an invigorating, illuminating experience.

The largest Sottsass show staged in a New York museum, and one of a celebratory crop for the centenary, it provides a broad picture of the origins of this architect/designer and of Memphis itself that few are familiar with. It details his influences and inspirations with artifacts from Egyptian, Indian and other non-Western cultures; examples of European and American modernism, as well as designs by Sottsass’s Memphis contemporaries (especially Peter Shire and Shiro Kuramata) and also some acolytes, misguided and not.

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