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The master of delight

Times Staff Writer

THE bulbous gold-leaf knobs on a yellow wood chest demand to be touched. A blue bookcase, tilted on its side, provokes giggles. (Books tend to tilt, so why shouldn’t it?) Cutlery, ineffably simple but incredibly balanced, seduces the hand that holds it

For the Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass, shape, texture, volume and color are languages as direct as the spoken word. They talk to the senses rather than the intellect and deliver the message that using a beautiful object can make you feel more alive than using one that is less well-designed.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 04, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 04, 2006 Home Edition Home Part F Page 6 Features Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Architect’s name -- In a March 9 article on Ettore Sottsass in the Home section, architect Lorcan O’Herlihy’s last name was spelled O’Herlily.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 04, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Architect’s name: In a March 9 Home section article on Ettore Sottsass, architect Lorcan O’Herlihy’s last name was misspelled as O’Herlily.

The 88-year-old, ponytailed Sottsass, here for his first major U.S. museum show, has spent 65 years making furniture, glass, ceramics, jewelry, even houses, into what he calls “catalysts of perception,” objects designed to enhance the life of users simply by being used.

If this sounds abstract, Sottsass explains it much more simply: “To drink water from a waxed paper cup on the highway and to drink it from a crystal goblet are different gestures. In the first case, you almost forget that you exist as you drink. In the second ... you realize that you have in your hands an instrument that makes you reflect upon how you are living at that moment,” he said in an interview in Domus magazine in 2004.

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Although revered in the inner circles of American design and architecture, the public has had little exposure to Sottsass’ name or his art. That will change on Sunday when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art unveils the first museum survey of his designs in the United States.

The artist has long been iconic in Europe, where his work is exhibited at the great museums, and he is perhaps best known as the Memphis Man -- the rebel who formed the Memphis design collaborative in the 1980s and inspired an explosion of unorthodox ideas in furniture and decorative arts that rocked the Western world.

If you have ever mixed multiple patterns in a single room, painted one wall a daring color, purchased a teapot with a little bird that whistles when the water’s hot or infused your house with inspiring objects from other cultures, there are experts who’ll say it’s due to the influence of Sottsass and his group.

“Sottsass is one of the greatest designers of the 20th century and one of the greatest poets of design of all time,” says Paola Antonelli, curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “What he did was revolutionary, from the 1960s on. First, designing typewriters and mainframe computers for Olivetti, then doing the first decorative plastic laminates for Memphis, which are still in use today. And just his philosophical ideas about feeling free to be decorative. An approach to furniture that was full of poetry and humor, that was all about pleasure and iconoclasm.”

After all the raves, the mystery remains: Why is this his first major U.S. museum show?

Ronald T. Labaco, the show’s curator and LACMA’s assistant curator of decorative arts, says it may be because Sottsass’ work is so hard to pin down. “We tend to want to categorize and identify an artist with a specific style and kind of work. Sottsass eludes that. He has done such diverse things, in such diverse styles -- and he doesn’t fit into any neat category of Modernism.”

Still Sottsass has been most often described as a postmodernist, a term which he hates, says R. Craig Miller, curator of architecture, design and graphics at the Denver Art Museum. “But it’s universally used to describe the movement in reaction to Modernist design of the Bauhaus, which was a very rationalist kind of industrial design. Sottsass was very much in opposition to that. His work, starting way back in his student days, is more emotional.”

Sottsass started getting recognized in the 1960s, Miller says, “when he became a kind of gang leader of a group that tried to break away from Bauhaus. When Memphis was formed 20 years later, Sottsass was already in his 60s -- and when that work burst onto the international scene, it had seismic impact. It shook the foundations of design.”

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Peter Shire, an Echo Park artist and a member of the Memphis collaborative until 1987, recalls that period. “I was recruited to join Memphis after Sottsass saw my work in Wet magazine. He sent two of his colleagues from his studios in Milan to look me up in California.... He’s an amazing, amazing person. So perceptive, with an intuitive understanding of the nature of life. The group he led was rebelling against what big design had become, which was stilted. No life in it. We released everything. Rectilinear structure went, color was liberated, and pattern. People suddenly understood what could be done. In simple terms, it’s the only authentically different and innovative design movement of the second half of the 20th century.”

Whereas Bauhaus rejected historical references, Sottsass embraced the vastness of human experience in every way he could. He traveled extensively, drawn particularly to non-Western cultures, their symbols and signs -- India, Ceylon, Nepal and Burma on one three-month tour in 1961.

His large 1969 green glazed earthenware altar, on view at LACMA, is composed of stacked concentric circles of varying heights, all radiating from a central axis. It inspires reverence and introspection -- and maybe just a little mirth. Its title: “Altar: For the Sacrifice of My Solitude [Before It Is Desecrated by the Deceit of Politics].”

Even the name Memphis has a historical connotation. It came about on a winter night when he and his colleagues were forming the group, white wine was flowing, and a Bob Dylan record played over and over again. Nobody bothered to change it. “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” was in the background when they talked of a name, and Sottsass said, “Let’s call it Memphis.” Everyone agreed, because it was symbolic of America, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and also ancient Egypt, the holy city of the god Ptah.

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And Sottsass is still at it. “What’s so amazing,” Miller says, “is that Sottsass is still doing important work,” and that he has lasted long enough to see a whole new generation taking inspiration from him.

When Sottsass arrived at LACMA on Wednesday morning for a press preview, he was using a wheelchair and kept his remarks brief, as he did in a phone conversation from Milan right before the trip to L.A. Neither his age nor his recent illness (a bad back and blood clot in the leg) has dampened his ardor for his work.

He’s currently drawing plans for a new resort “with lots of swimming pools,” doing graphics for a giant oil company and creating furniture.

Of course, Sottsass has frequently said he doesn’t care about all the academics and their “isms.” He is a painter, poet, philosopher, photographer, designer of textiles and graphics and exquisitely exuberant homes. And he has declined to commodify his name or his creations. There are no Sottsass pizza cutters or steak knives in Target, as there are from that other famous architect-designer, Michael Graves, who was a Memphis participant as well.

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Sottsass does, however, have commercial liaisons. Alessi, for example, reproduces items he has designed for the home, such as the classic 1978 condiment set, the original of which is in the museum show.

That Sottsass is getting his own show now is in large part due to Max Palevsky, who is funding the LACMA exhibition. “This is the end of a long trail for me,” says the L.A. philanthropist and art collector. He’s been collecting Sottsass’ work for at least 25 years and has been “trying to get a show on for at least 20 of those years. I once did everything but bribe the people at MoMA.”

He still can’t understand their reluctance, he says. “If you’re in Paris, chances are there’ll be a museum show of Sottsass’ work. Anywhere you travel around the civilized world you’ll see shows of his work. It would be difficult to name a museum of any caliber in the world, other than in the U.S., that hasn’t had a Sottsass show.”

Palevsky theorizes that the problem may be “something in Ettore’s style that is not traditional in the sense of what we think of as traditionally modern furniture. It’s funkier. It has a totally different color sense, a different geometry. He also has a terrific joie de vivre and a sincere interest in humanity -- qualities which are very much reflected in his work. I live with it. It’s art.”

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At tonight’s invitation-only preview of the LACMA show, guests will be treated to a conversation between two living greats in architecture: Sottsass and Frank Gehry.

Sottsass’ houses, angular and colorful, are designed to be comfort zones, he says, to embrace and protect and to provide what humans need. It’s very basic, he says, “you don’t need to be an architect.” Primitive societies seem to have mastered it quite well.

A kinship between Sottsass’ architecture and furniture designs is evident in the Olabuenaga house, which he designed in 1989 for a client on Maui. Bright blocks of color define different spaces in the house, but are subdued by the thick black roof that sits like a tabletop above them.

The breadth and length of Sottsass’ career make it impossible for a show to cover the full range of his output. But LACMA’s includes spectacular work from the important periods of his creative life and affirms that his effect on the way we live started long before and extends well beyond Memphis.

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The now-iconic portable “Valentine” typewriter, for example, is from 1969. It was in the 1950s that Sottsass signed on with the newly created electronics division of Olivetti in Italy. The cherry red portable with a lightweight plastic casing won instant public adoration. Sottsass’ redesign of the casing for Olivetti’s huge mainframe computer won him Italy’s highest design award in 1959. In that instance, he lowered the height of the machine, so that for the first time workers could see each other. And he added color blocks so that components could be distinguished from one another.

Sottsass, born in Austria, grew up in Milan, where his father was an architect. In 1939, he too graduated from architecture school, and after military service, collaborated with his father on several projects. He opened his own architecture practice in 1947, two years before marrying Fernanda Pivano, an Italian writer, from whom he was divorced in 1976.

The following years were filled with travel, painting, writing, photography, architecture, designs for furniture, lamps, ceramics, glassware, textiles. He founded the Memphis design group in 1981 and withdrew formally in 1985.

With a new focus on residential architecture, he received his first U.S. commission to build the Wolf house in Ridgeway, Colo., in 1987.

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From 1976 on, he and the Italian writer Barbara Radice have been life companions, and are now married. She wrote the 1984 book “Memphis: Research, Experiences, Results, Failures and Successes of New Design.”

Although Sottsass sounds exhilarated and eager to see this first U.S. museum show, he agreed on the phone that there’s a certain irony to such exhibitions, no matter in what country. They tend to lend a certain permanence to the work, he says. And yet he knows, in the existential sense, that all work is evanescent.

In the book written by Radice on the Memphis experience, Sottsass reflected those thoughts in the introduction he wrote:

“This nice, big book ... will go out into the world, and students may not be able to buy it because it’ll cost a lot ... and those who can afford it will put it in bookcases, between the History of Art Nouveau and Japanese Packaging, perhaps.... Where it will end up nobody knows. Everybody will bury it where they want, so good-bye book and good-bye Memphis ... “

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In an interview with Sottsass printed in the LACMA catalog, he says: “My projects are never stopped in time, never. Eternity doesn’t interest me. Life is about moments.” On the phone he chuckles about that too. Yes, a museum exhibition may be antithetical to some of his beliefs, he says. “Yet what else is there? There are only books and museums.”

Bettijane Levine can be reached at bettijane.levine@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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His life’s work at LACMA

The first major U.S. museum survey of Ettore Sottsass’ work opens Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The exhibit covers key periods in the Italian architect-designer’s life, including before and after his years at Memphis design cooperative in Milan.

“Ettore Sottsass,” March 12 to June 11, LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

Noon to 8 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; noon to 9 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Wednesday. Admission fee. For details, call (323) 857-6000 or visit www.lacma.org.

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Show catalog: “Ettore Sottsass: Architect and Designer,” by Ronald T. Labaco, $39.95.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Snapshots of Sottsass

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What is Ettore Sottsass’ legacy? The Italian architect and designer -- iconic in Europe but less known in the U.S. -- gained notoriety in the 1960s and later cemented his place in history by founding the Memphis collective in the 1980s. Here, thoughts on Sottsass’ accomplishments from the world of design.

-- Bettijane Levine

“Sottsass always pushed the limits of design in furniture, architecture, industrial design. He launched Memphis at a time when design seemed very stuck and offered a whole new vision, a way of looking at things that brought vitality and interest in design.... Right now, when you turn on TV and see Target marketing designers to the general public, it’s because the public is interested in design. I think you can track that back 40 years; it’s an evolution from Memphis.”

DAVID MOCARSKI

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Chairman of Environmental

Design, Art Center College

of Design

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“We sat on my balcony with a couple of drinks and shared our sketchbooks. In terms of working together, that’s as close as we got.

“I was struck by Ettore’s energy and vigor as he looked through my sketchbook, and I felt very much the same in looking through his.... In his product design practice, he showed that ordinary objects can be well designed and contribute to our larger visual and cultural environment.”

MICHAEL GRAVES

Designer and former

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Memphis participant

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“He’s an extremely important designer. I also believe he’s an excellent person to buy right now. The market has consistently undervalued his work. It’s just starting to become more fashionable.... I had a great marble bench -- solid marble with upholstery, from about 1982. Probably less than five were ever made. I thought it would look great in an entranceway. It was estimated at $12,000 and we sold it for $8,000. I think that with this new museum show, prices will start to pop a bit.”

RICHARD WRIGHT

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President of Wright Auction

House in Chicago

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“More than anything in looking at his work, it is his inventiveness. His work has always been intriguing, very unique.

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“When you see a Sottsass project, you know it is his -- playful in terms of color, but there is a sophistication too. I like that sense of wonder in his work.”

LORCAN O’HERLILY

Architect


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