Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) Austrian Designer

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Telephone designed by Ettore Sottsass
Telephone designed by Ettore Sottsass

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. Through the useful and ornamental pieces he produces, the Italian genius has made a life’s work of defying notions of “good” taste and integrating art, humour, and kitsch into everyday routines. Take, for example, his four-decade-old gorgeous candy-apple red adding machine: It’s the forerunner to the edible-looking iMac.


His father Ettore Sottsass studied at the Akademie der bildenden KĂĽnste 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. 

“Decoration can be a state of mind, an unusual perception, a ritual whisper.”

Ettore Sottsass

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; (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. 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).  The designer’s Memphis designs are well-known for their striking colours, intricate patterns, weird material pairings, and historically diverse sources of inspiration.

Shiva vase - Ettore Sottsass.
Shiva vase – Ettore Sottsass. The vase serves as a modern interpretation of the phallic-shaped linga that symbolised Shiva in the Hindu religion
"Murmansk" Fruit Dish 1982 designed by Ettore Sottsass
“Murmansk” Fruit Dish 1982 designed by Ettore Sottsass

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

Tartar Table 1985 by Ettore Sottsass
Tartar Table 1985 by Ettore Sottsass
Casablanca Sideboard by Ettore Sottsass,
Casablanca Sideboard by Ettore Sottsass,


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’.

Kyle, R. (2006). Ettore sottsass, architect and designer: The AIA journal. Architecture, 95(5), 95.

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

You may also be interested in

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

Studio Alchymia was founded in 1976 in Milan as a think tank for designers who rebelled against modernism’s functionalist approach. Their products were intended as prototypes or unique exhibits. Studio Alchymia was founded in 1976 in Milan as a think tank for designers rebelling against the functionalist approach of modernism.

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.

Memphis Group – it has little to do with Tennessee – Encyclopedia of Design

Memphis was a movement in interior design introduced at the annual Milan Furniture Fair in 1981. It consisted of a group led by Memphis guru Ettore Sottass of avant-garde Italian designers. With outrageous interpretations of traditional furnishings and accessories, Memphis shocked the traditionally quiet industry.

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