Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) Austrian Designer

Enorme Telephone 1986

Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) was an Austrian designer; born in Innsbruck and active in Milan. Between 1935 and 1939 he studied architecture at the Politecnico di Torino.


His father Ettore Sottsass studied at the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna under Otto Wagner. He moved to Turin in 1928 with his family, where he became a protagonist in the architectural debate between Marcello Piacentini and Giuseppi Pagano over the Railway Station project in Florence in the 1930s. Sottsas Jr. began his career as an architect in 1947, setting up The Studio, Milan. 

Although trained and active as an architect, Sottsass secured a permanent place in pop culture with his designs of everyday items. From 1957, he was a consultant designer at Olivetti, where he designed computers, adding machines, typewriters, and systems furniture

Father of Anti-Design Movement

He became a father figure of the Anti-Design movement of the 1960s. From 1966, his furniture for Poltronova was influenced by Pop Art and an extended visit to the USA when he worked in the studio of George Nelson in New York for a year in 1966. His subcontinental Indian-inspired ceramics were produced in 1969. He designed the radical, if intentionally plain, 1970 Grey furniture range made by Poltronova; it was inspired by American minimalist sculpture; (with Michele De Lucchi) designed Olivetti’s 1982 Icarus office-furniture range. His links with Anti-Design became stronger after 1979 when he began to associate with members of Studio Alchimia. 

In 1980, (with Aldo Cibic, Marco Zanini, and Matteo Thun) he established Sottsass Associati. Sottsass set up the Memphis furniture and furnishings group in 1981, with a highly successful showing at the Salone del Mobile in Milan of that year. Winding up Memphis in 1988, Sottsass continued to include humour and sometimes folly in his designs for clients including Cleto Munari (accessories), Fusital (hardware fittings), Zanotta (furniture), Artemide (lighting), Swid Powell (metalware and ceramics). 

Shiva vase

This vase serves as a modern interpretation of the phallic-shaped linga form that symbolized Shiva in the Hindu religion. Sottsass, one of the most important Italian designers of the 20th century, was deeply impacted by religion and religious symbolism during his journeys to India in the 1960s. This piece displays Sottsass’s penchant for adopting, but at the same time subverting, traditional forms. The hot pink color, while seemingly inconsistent with the somber nature of a religious object, reflects Sottsass’s fascination with the bright colors that pervade both the clothing and the architecture of India, which he incorporated into his architectural projects as well.

“Murmansk” Fruit Dish

Produced for Memphis, the group of Italian designers and architects formed in 1981 to create alternatives to the prevailing modernism of the postwar era, this centerpiece is an example of Sottsass’s designs that engage the user. Is Murmansk a reference to the city in Russia? Are the zigzag columns a reference to Russian steppes? Or is the manipulation of the silver simply a subversion of a traditional columnar form? The refraction of light permitted by the zigzag forms distorts the reflected images in the manner of a fun-house mirror, elevating the fruit bowl to the iconic status of Pop art..

Sottsass was known for this playfulness and wit as well as his whimsical ornamentation. His Adesso Pero stained wood bookshelf from 1992 looks like three red lighting bolts shooting into a red platform. His Tahiti lamp, from 1981, resembles a tropical bird with a long yellow neck and boxy red beak.

In 1986 with Christopher Radl and Ambrogio Borsani, he established publicity agency Italiana di Communicazione. He had more than 100 clients worldwide. 

Summary of works

His work for Olivetti included;

  • the 1959 Elea 9003 computer series,
  • 1963 Praxis and 1964 Tekne 3 typewriters, and the
  • 1969 Valentine red plastic portable typewriter.
  • Enorme produced his 1988 telephone design.

His furniture for Memphis included;

  • the 1981 Casablanca and Beverly cabinets, 
  • Carlton and Survetta bookcases, and Mandarin table;
  • 1982 Malabar console,
  • Alaska silver vase, and Marmansk silver compote;
  • 1983 City and Park Lane tables;
  • 1984 Hyatt and Mimosa side tables. 
  • Palm Spring and Holebid tables;
  • 1985 Freemont and Tartar consoles and Ivory table;
  • 1986 Manhattan cart;
  • 1987 Max bookcase and Donald table.

His lighting for Memphis included;

  • the 1981 Treetops floor lamp, 
  • Tahiti and Ashoka table lamps,
  • 1983 Bay table lamp, and 1984 Diva table lamp.

His Memphis ceramic designs were the;

  • 1983 TigrisNila, and Euphrates vases, and
  • 1985 IndiviaLettuce and Rucola plates.

His fabrics for Memphis included 1983 Schizzo, Rete and Lettraset

Westside Lounge Chair by Ettore Sottsass for Knoll, 1983

Items Similar to Westside Lounge Chair by Ettore Sottsass for Knoll, 1983, Expertly Reupholstered Rare Westside lounge chair by the master of Postmodern design, Ettore Sottsass.

Casablanca Sideboard

Casablanca Sideboard, designed 1981. Wood, plastic laminate, 90 1/2 x 59 x 15 3/4 in. (229.9 x 149.9 x 40 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Furniture of the 20th Century, Inc., 83.104

Tartar Table

The Tartar Table reflects a focus on complex geometric forms, patterns, and colors, which characterizes Sottsass’s work for Memphis, the collective he established in the 1980s. The table encapsulates the qualities that defined Memphis: unconventional and innovative new forms that challenged the design status quo; an emphasis on the ephemeral quality of design as media images in circulation; a cheeky interplay between low-cost materials and high-quality production; and a return to the primacy of the designer’s ideas as the main driver for production/consumption.


Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

Ettore Sottsass, Designer, Is Dead at 90 – The New York Times.

Ettore Sottsass – ‘giant of design’.

Oxford University Press. (2004). A Dictionary of Modern Design (1st ed.).

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“The Structures Tremble” Table 1979 by Ettore Sottsass – Encyclopedia of Design

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Aldo Cibic self-taught Italian architect and designer – Encyclopedia of Design

Aldo Cibic is a self-taught architect, designer, researcher, environmentalist and humanist. He was born in Vicenza and professionally active in Milan. In the late ’70s, he moved to Milan. He joined Ettore Sottsass studio, eventually becoming a partner in the Sottsass Associati studio.

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