“Guru of radical design” – Ettore Sottsass’ colorful designs celebrate Alessi’s centennial

The Alessi 100 Values Collection features new editions of iconic products by Ettore Sottsass and other notable names of Italian design. Sottsass is also known for his groundbreaking work in the Memphis collective and the Radical Design movement.

Ettore Sottsass designs
Ettore Sottsass’ wooden objects first appeared in Alessi’s Twergi collection in 1989 and are now introduced in the Alessi 100 Values Collection.

DURING 2021–2022, the Italian design house Alessi celebrates its centennial by introducing the Alessi 100 Values Collection.  The collection will include 12 projects, each of them presenting a different value behind the brand.

The journey begins with Industrial Craftsmanship, which refers to a factory whose nature stands between mass-produced and artisan-made. At Alessi, almost all the operations are done with machines but, as Alberto Alessi puts it: “These machines are used with the spirit of the craftsman, not conditioned by the logic of the assembly line; they are readily used to bend to the expressive needs of the designer.”

Among the first releases of the collection is a series of wooden objects by legendary Austro-Italian designer Ettore Sottsass. The wooden spice grinders, corkscrews, jars and centerpieces first appeared in Alessi’s product line in 1989 in the Twergi collection, a series of objects made by turning wood. The objects are now launched in new, overlapping color combinations typical for Sottsass.

Sottsass is often regarded as one of the most influential innovators, thinkers and rebels of 20th-century design. His works are included in the collections of the leading museums of art and design, and he has received some of the world’s most important design recognitions, such as the Compasso d’Oro award for the Nuovo Milano cutlery set for Alessi.

Alessi Ettore Sottsass grinder, pink
The objects in the Alessi 100 Values Collection derive from the Alessi Museum’s archives, featuring previously unpublished works and new editions of iconic products. The Sottsass spice grinders are available in three sizes and color combinations.
Alessi Sottsass jar 75 cl, red
The Sottsass glass jars have airtight lids shaped like small totems.

A monumental designer

“I had a childhood conditioned by the presence of Nature... the massive Dolomites, trees with splendid trunks topped by high canopies, the deep valley and the mountains above; in short, the sense of the weight of nature and the landscape. I also had a sense of superimposition, because light things are always in the air, heavy things are at the bottom. I have grown accustomed often to play a child's game and came to realise it late: I always put one thing on top of another even when drawing. Almost all the objects I design have a base; they don’t touch the ground directly. As soon as you put a shape on a base, the shape immediately becomes important, firmer: it becomes a small monument. Your relationship is with a small monument. So you pay more attention,” Sottsass has described.

Born in Austria in 1917, Sottsass studied architecture in Turin Polytechnic, Italy, graduating in 1939. During the Second World War, he was imprisoned for six years, and after being released, he settled in Milan. Sottsass’ career started as a combination of art and design: he joined the Concrete Art movement, founded his own design studio and explored the field of photography.

“Ettore Sottsass is something of a philosopher, bursting with charisma, and he has something interesting to say about everything.”

In the mid-50s, Sottsass became the art director of the furniture company Poltronova and a design consultant for the IT company Olivetti. Some of his innovative designs from the 1950s feature the Superbox wardrobes Poltronova and a range of typewriters, calculators and computers – including the first Italian computer Elea 9003 – for Olivetti.

Sottsass’ collaboration with Alessi began only in the 1980s, but Alberto Alessi has recalled meeting the designer first time already in the early 1970s:

“Ettore Sottsass came to Crusinallo in 1972. I was really impressed. He was preceded by the fame of his work for Olivetti, his reputation as the guru of radical design… and he was the first person of truly international standing with whom I had dealings. He is something of a philosopher, bursting with charisma, and he has something interesting to say about everything. It was with him that I began talking over the ’high’ topics of design, the role of industry in society. Although we meet up only once in a while – due to a certain shyness on my part, as if I was afraid of using up the relationship with him – he was the first person I met through work who for me has become a real mentor, one of my maestros.”

Alessi Ettore Sottsass centrepiece
“Almost all the objects I design have a base; they don’t touch the ground directly. As soon as you put a shape on a base, the shape immediately becomes important, firmer: it becomes a small monument,” Sottsass has said. The limewood centerpiece is made using a lathe.
Ettore Sottsass designs
The Alessi 100 Values Collection consists of 12 projects, each presenting a different value behind the brand. The first one, Industrial Craftsmanship, is reflected in Ettore Sottsass’ wooden objects.
Alessi Sottsass corkscrew, yellow - red - black
The Sottsass corkscrew brings to mind the colorful, geometric style of the Memphis group, founded in 1980.

“Radical, funny, and outrageous”

Quite early in his career, Sottsass started developing new means to use design as a tool for social criticism and countercultural movements. In 1967–68, he published an art magazine, Pianeta Fresco, with his wife, journalist Fernanda Pivano and poet Allen Ginsberg, with topics ranging from anti-militarism and civil rights to mystical experiences and expansion of knowledge. And together with the avant-garde group Studio Alchymia, he contributed to the Radical Design movement, which wanted to break from the past by developing radically new ways of living.

Sottsass co-founded the famous design collective Memphis in 1980 as a contrast to strict functionalism and the good taste of the time. Memphis aimed at creating “radical, funny, and outrageous” pieces with “a symbolic, emotive and ritual aspect”, taking influences from various sources from Art Deco to pop art, kitsch and postmodernism. Many of the works are imaginative, totemic pieces coated with colorful laminate and terrazzo.

At the same time, Sottsass established the internationally successful architectural firm Sottsass Associati, which is still in operation today. Later in the 1980s, he continued his intellectual work by co-founding the Terrazzo magazine to create a platform for critical discussion and analysis on design and architecture.

In 1980, Ettore Sottsass co-founded the famous design collective Memphis as a contrast to strict functionalism and the good taste of the time.

Eventually, Sottsass grew disappointed in mass production and consumerism, leading him to radically reduce his work as a designer, focusing more on architecture. His architectural works from the late 20th century have an emphasis on establishing a connection between the natural and the artificial as well as creating spaces full of emotions, meanings and life.

“Design is one way to discuss life. It is a way to discuss society, politics, eroticism, food and even design. Lastly, it is a way to build a possible figurative utopia or to build a metaphor of life. Of course, for me, design is not limited to the need to lend more or less form to a stupid product destined for a more or less sophisticated industry; therefore, if you have to teach anything about design, it should be, above all, something about life, and you should stress this point, explaining that technology is a metaphor for life,” Sottsass summarized his holistic design view in 1993.

Ettore Sottsass portrait
Ettore Sottsass used design and architecture also as tools to provoke social debate. Photo: Barbara Radice, 1984.

Who: Ettore Sottsass Jr.

  • Born in Innsbruck in 1917 and died in Milan in 2007.
  • Graduated from Turin Polytechnic in 1939.
  • Established his own design studio in Milan in 1947 and the architecture and design firm Sottsass Associati in 1980.
  • Notable designs: Elea 9003 computer (1959) and Valentine typewriter (1969) for Olivetti; Superbox cabinet (1966) and Ultrafragola mirror (1970) for Poltronova; Carlton bookcase, Casablanca cabinet and Tahiti lamp (1981) for Memphis; Enorme phone for Brondi (1986); Mandarin chair for Knoll (1986); Nuovo Milano cutlery set (1987) and Twergi collection (1989) for Alessi.
  • Architectural works: Alessi Showroom, Milan (1987); Wolf House, Colorado (1987–89); Nanon House (1995–98) and Mourmans House (1998–01), Lanaken, Belgium; Yuko House, Tokyo (1991–93); Zhaoqing Resort and Golf Club, China (1994–96); Jasmine Hill Houses, Singapore (2000).
  • Recognitions: Compasso d’Oro award (1959, 1970, 1989); iF Design Award (1994); Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Republic (2003); Gold Medal and Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (2005); Honorary degrees at Rhode Island School of Design in the USA (1993), Royal College of Art in London (1996), Glasgow School of Art (1999), London Institute of Art (2001) and Milan Polytechnic (2001).

Ettore Sottsass’ designs

Sottsass corkscrew
Sottsass grinder
Sottsass jar
Sottsass centrepiece
Sottsass grinder
Sottsass jar
Sottsass grinder
Sottsass grinder

See also:

More designs by Ettore Sottsass >
All products by Alessi >

Text: Nora Uotila Images: Alessi

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