Ettore Sottsass: The Italian Designer Icon Who Transformed the World of Design

Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) was a pioneering Italian designer and architect who revolutionized the world of design with his bold, unconventional, and colorful creations. His distinct style and avant-garde approach not only influenced the realm of design but also left a lasting impact on the way people perceive objects in their surroundings. This article delves into the life, career, and legacy of the iconic Italian designer, Ettore Sottsass.

Early Life and Education

Ettore Sottsass was born on September 14, 1917, in Innsbruck, Austria. He spent his formative years in Milan, Italy, where his father, an architect, inspired him to pursue a career in design. Sottsass graduated from the Politecnico di Torino in 1939 with a degree in architecture. Following a brief period of military service during World War II, he returned to Milan to work as an architect in his father’s firm.

Career and Artistic Vision

Sottsass’s early career was marked by collaborations with various Italian design firms, including Poltronova and Olivetti. At Olivetti, he was responsible for designing the iconic red Valentine typewriter in 1969, which earned him international recognition. His work in the 1950s and 1960s showcased his ability to challenge traditional design norms and aesthetics.

However, it was in the 1980s when Sottsass truly came into his own. Disillusioned with the industrialized world’s sterile, functional approach to design, he sought to create objects that evoked emotion and provoked thought. To this end, he founded the Memphis Group in 1981, a collective of designers and architects that would go on to redefine the design landscape.

Memphis and Postmodernism

The Memphis Group, led by Sottsass, was a reaction against the rigid, minimalist design principles that dominated the 20th century. Instead, Memphis embraced a postmodern approach, characterized by bold colors, unconventional shapes, and an eclectic mix of materials. Their designs often incorporated kitsch elements, which blurred the lines between high and low culture, and they drew inspiration from various historical periods and cultures.

Memphis creations were often seen as playful, whimsical, and even controversial, as they pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in design. Some of their most famous pieces include the Carlton bookshelf, the Tahiti lamp, and the Plaza dressing table.

Sottsass’s most notable works

  1. Valentine Typewriter (1969): A portable typewriter designed for Olivetti, featuring a bold red color and compact form that emphasized its object-like qualities and distinguished it from more traditional typewriters.
  2. Memphis Group (1981-1988): As the founder of the Memphis Group, Sottsass led the creation of a wide range of furniture, lighting, and decorative objects that featured bold colors, unconventional shapes, and a playful mix of materials. Key pieces include the Carlton Room Divider (1981), Casablanca Sideboard (1981), and Tahiti Lamp (1981).
  3. Ultrafragola Mirror (1970): A large, wavy-edged mirror with integrated fluorescent lighting, the Ultrafragola is both a functional object and an art piece, reflecting Sottsass’s interest in blending functionality with artistic expression.
  4. Esprit Stores (1980s): Sottsass designed the interiors and facades for several Esprit stores, particularly in Europe, using bold graphics, vivid colors, and playful geometric shapes to create a distinctive retail experience.
  5. Sottsass Associati (1980-2007): As the founder and principal of his own design studio, Sottsass worked on a wide range of projects, from furniture and product design to architecture and urban planning. Some notable projects include the Malpensa Airport in Milan and the Alessi 5070 Condiment Set.
  6. Olivetti Synthesis office furniture (1972): Sottsass designed a modular office furniture system for Olivetti that showcased his innovative use of color and form, creating workspaces that were both functional and visually engaging.


Although the Memphis Group disbanded in 1988, their work continues to influence the world of design. Sottsass’s unique approach to design has had a lasting impact on the way people view objects and their surrounding environments.

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