The Ceramics of Ettore Sottsass

SLIDESHOW: Ettore Sottsass: “I’m half architect and half something else that defies definition.”

"Ceramic is a fascinating material: it starts off soft and grey… but once finished and radiant and purified by fire, suddenly becomes eternal…" said the late Italian designer.

If you had to sum him up, you could call the Italian designer Ettore Sottsass (1917–2007) the architect of the essential. This genius created a new language using ceramics. He borrowed forms and primary colours from ancient civilisations. Throughout his career, he always knew how to capture what was essential in the age-old forms and take inspiration from holy visions. “For five or six thousand years, ceramics have been with us — as sweet as bread and yet older than bread. They’re older than the Bible and Jesus Christ, older than all the poetry ever written, older than all the houses and older than all the metals in the world. Ceramics withstand everything. Old, dry, homely terracotta withstands everything… Ceramic is a fascinating material: it starts off soft and grey… but once finished and radiant and purified by fire, suddenly becomes eternal… The tower of Babel was also made of terracotta. Even the colossus in the dream of Nebuchadnezzar had terracotta feet: the first failures of mankind had to do with terracotta.”

Through this contact with the earth the young architectural graduate sought to re-enchant the world, breathing into it a form of optimism. “I’m convinced that we, as designer and architect, have the task of designing things that attract happiness… When you mix colours, you’re not simply mixing colours. You are making a statement by combining the colours, just as you would put together a sentence, word by word. And in the end, a meaning emerges… Read the pottery and you will know everything… Look at the pottery; everything is in there, like the poems and the songs.”

Born in Innsbruck, Austria, Sottsass was the most Viennese of Italian architects; his style was part of the tradition of the Wiener Werkstätte and Josef Hoffmann, yet stands midway between Viennese rigour and Italian freedom. He loved to work with black-and-white squares, and was at home in Italian culture. This duality is what let him knock down the border between art and design; he was the first to understand that furniture design must no longer be purely functional. Like an artist, it was necessary to break with protocol. And what is protocol? Starting from project specifications to create a piece of furniture. Sottsass never cared about project specifications; he imagined a use, translated a political thought, created a statement. He started from the idea that if it was comfortable, people would want to sit down on it. If not, then it was just too bad. It’s for this reason that he felt: “All my designs look like small architectures.”

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