Ettore Sottsass on a 1966 Superbox, Poltronova. Photo Giuseppe Pino/Contrasto, 1979
Combining the violent colours of gas stations in America and the mysterious rituals of India, Ettore Sottsass created a cast of cabinet characters ready for the drama of life.
Text by Francesca Balena Arista
There are those who design chairs for offices and those who dream of cities where everyone’s happy. There are times in which you put on a jacket and shoes and go out to the cinema, and other times when, laid on the bed with eyes wide open, you wonder what’s happening at that particular moment on the outskirts of Hong Kong, in those over-crowded houses where men haven’t enough space to be men.
Ettore Sottsass, Il controdesign, 1971.
Italian designer and architect Ettore Sottsass is mainly remembered as the driving force behind Memphis, the 1980s design collective made up of established and emerging designers. A symbol of ‘New Design’, Memphis created an innovative alphabet made up of geometric shapes, bold colours and unique combinations of precious and poor materials, especially plastic laminate.
Sottsass’s adventure with plastic laminate had started fifteen years earlier, however. Back in the mid-1960s he elaborated Superbox, one of his key designs, for the Tuscan furniture manufacturer Poltronova, for whom he was art director.
This was the first time that Sottsass had used plastic laminate, manufactured specially for him by the Italian company Abet Print. And he would continue to use it subsequently in works for Studio Alchimia and later for Memphis. For Sottsass, the decision to use laminate — considered a simple, humble material up to then — meant ‘writing a 3000-page novel, using the paper, characters, and language of telegraphs’, that is, using ‘a linguistic material stripped of all the sweetness and softness of the spoken word, or of poetry or song…’
Superbox model L’Amatore del Magnetofono, 1966. Courtesy Centro Studi Poltronova
Mostly parallelepiped in shape and standing on large pedestals, these totemic storage units are, as their name implies, simple boxes, transformed with colour and decoration. Sottsass designed a striking sequence of different models. In 1967 the series was published in the Italian magazine Domus, in an article by Tommaso Trini Castelli entitled ‘Ettore Sottsass: Katalogo mobili 1966 — studi per Poltronova in laminato plastico Print’.
This was a brilliant stratagem. The article presents a series of small models, photographed by Sottsass as if they were real. The Superboxes, as they would later be called, are set in ‘rooms’ that underline their narrative value. These are actual installations (over twenty of them), each with a precise title, such as L’Amatore del Magnetofono; Gli armadi a colori del mio amore; Nirvana; Torno Subito; La Camera di Hong Kong; Il Boudoir di Jean Harlow, Harakiri dell’Architetto; I like sex…
Freed from its traditional function, the furniture here becomes the absolute protagonist. It is always set far from walls, at times arranged in the middle of the room. The idea of an item of furniture as a character, conquering the centre of the space as if it were an element in a mysterious ritual, undeniably comes from India, a country he visited along with his then wife Fernanda Pivano. In India, as in all animist cultures, particular places and objects are attributed with divine, supernatural qualities.
Trini Castelli writes that this ‘furniture-non-furniture’ calls to mind ‘those monolithic monuments to the sun whose meaning we know nothing about but whose psychic power is limitless’. For Sottsass, they are like sightings of strange objects from another world. He made them in wood,
covered with silk-screened plastic laminate, in solid colours, or horizontal, vertical,
diagonal stripes. Even though the Superboxes were designed, intentionally, as industrial objects, only the simplest models were actually produced for exhibitions, installations, or in very limited series. In 2005 the Centro Studi Poltronova realized five of them that had never been manufactured before, personally chosen by Ettore Sottsass Jr. from the ‘Katalogo’ published in 1967 by Domus.
I followed this project with Roberta Meloni, CEO of the Centro Studi Poltronova. Sottsass explained to me how he sought to add colour and tactility to the world of design with his Superboxes, ‘because they are a little glossy and a bit matt’. He also tried to include ‘popular perception’ because the signs used are those found on the streets, in ads, and the colours are those ‘from gas stations, very violent, very American’, as he himself described them. So, if on the one hand there’s India, on the other we find America.
Remarkably, just a year earlier Sottsass had worked on Mobili Fly, a very different kind of furniture project, also for Poltronova. Made of wood and characterized by ceramic decorations and anodized aluminium knobs, Mobili Fly emphasized the importance of craft. In the Superbox project, by contrast, ‘there’s no room for the human hand, not even for sudden romantic inspiration’ because ‘the dull colours come from catalogues with numbers, and the so-called decorative figures, from a printing catalogue called Letraset, and that’s it’.
Mobili Fly, Poltronova 1965. Courtesy Centro Studi Poltronova
Barbarella, Mobili Fly Series, Poltronova 1965. Courtesy Triennale Museum Milan
The Fly collection is a series of small furnishings to be used as night or end tables, on wheels; storage units for living rooms; storage units to hang on walls; wood and ceramic credenzas; the Bastonio chest of drawers; the Barbarella drop-front cabinet; and the so-called ‘robot furniture’, or containers with anthropomorphic shapes with small drawers and large round eye-shaped knobs. Some, like the bar, rest on slender paws that finish with a round stick. These were presented in 1965 at the Centro Fly Casa in Milan (hence the name Mobili Fly, with which they are widely known). Sottsass writes: ‘I was in Paris the other day […] I was looking at the girls […] they wore patches of clothes assembled like parts of a machine or a car frame, in shocking ways, without colour nuances, or matching them, colour that goes with this and colour that goes with that and a purse that matches and those normal things etc. etc.: the girls looked like funny astronauts […] they had caught me off guard with their aggressiveness: they beat me to it, because what I had wanted to do with furniture they had already done with their clothes, with their car paint, with their white wax canvas boots, with their multi-coloured stockings in stripes, checks, or polka dots.’
Both friends and foes at the same time, the ‘robot furniture’ measures itself, even in size, against humans, in a comparison that evokes everyday reality and quite unlike his later experiments, which culminate in the disorientating Mobili Grigi and in the absolute emotional estrangement aroused by the plastic modules designed for the MoMA in New York.
Designed for Poltronova, the Mobili Grigi are made of fibreglass. Along with the coloured neon lighting (yellow, light-blue, orange, fuchsia), the glossy monochrome, dark-grey paint creates an unreal, suspended, metaphysical atmosphere. Rounded, sensual shapes — ‘curvy and swollen’ as Sottsass described them — follow one another to create waves and layers. For Sottsass, grey ‘is a very sad colour, maybe that’s what my hair will become. I mean, it’s a problematic colour if you want to make ads for detergents, toothpaste, vermouth, cocktails in general, appliances, deodorants, and things of the sort.’
When speaking of the Mobili Grigi photo shoots, Sottsass explained to me that the pictures with a leg or an arm sticking out of a wardrobe had the precise goal of emphasizing that ‘these furnishings were designed for a life that is aware of existential disaster. They weren’t made for a petite-bourgeois family.’ In the design sketches for this series, especially in the shelving units, there’s a surprising glimpse of the language Memphis would develop ten years later.
In 1972 Emilio Ambasz curated the legendary exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape for the MoMA in New York. On display were 180 objects and 12 installations, commissioned from the same number of designers: 9999, Archizoom, Gae Aulenti, Mario Bellini, Joe Colombo, Gruppo Strum, Ugo La Pietra, Gaetano Pesce, Alberto Rosselli, Ettore Sottsass Jr., Superstudio, Zanuso / Sapper.
Sottsass proposed a microenvironment with thirty-cm-thick grey fibreglass structures. Connected with simple hinges, these structures are closets that can not only store objects but also serve other purposes. Sottsass called them ‘ordinary boxes’ and ‘unexceptional containers’. He described the environment amorphous and chameleon-like, able ‘to display any emotion without taking part in it’. The units were made by Kartell, a leading manufacturer of plastic furniture. Moved by the willingness to neutralize the object as much as possible ‘in an attempt to imagine a society more interested in itself than in its symbols’, Sottsass gave these containers a form that was ‘a bit brutal but also a little dishevelled’.
‘I was not in the least worried about making elegant, gracious, soft, or amusing objects,’ he wrote, ‘and even less so with making silent objects that leave viewers unaffected, in a kind of psychic and cultural status quo […] but maybe I did the exact opposite: the form is not gracious at all,
it’s a kind of plastic orgy, a material that allows almost total deconditioning from the never-ending chain of psychic-erotic complacency regarding “possession”, I mean, possessing objects.’ Plastic erases ‘the semantic weight traditional furniture carries with it, and the uniform grey of the structure neutralizes the symbols related too much to domestic spaces.’
These containers can be used alone or combined in configurations. They are assembled on wheels, so even a child can move them easily. This almost limitless variability of the spatial axis should bring about, says Sottsass, ‘a heightened awareness of individual creativity and freedom’.
We shouldn’t forget the cultural context into which the project was born, the events of 1968, and Sottsass’s friendship with Beat Generation authors (translated into Italian by his wife Fernanda Pivano), the messengers of an anti-conventional and anti-bourgeois way of conceiving existence.
The view of a place to experience, like a happening, that constantly evolves is summed up in the drawings that accompany the project, in which plastic containers become the theatre wings of a sort of continuous space where a large bed and long table surrounded by cluttered chairs float.
What unites all the cabinets described here is that they are radical and constructed the ideology underpinning the international success of Sottsass.
But there’s no doubt that, sooner or later, something will be done so that one can put on one’s own environment every day as we do our clothes, as we choose a road along which to walk, or a book to read, or a theatre to go to […]. I have only wished to suggest such thoughts, without the slightest intention either of aesthetics or, as it is called, design.
Ettore Sottsass, Design of Furniture, 1972