The question of bedclothes is not trivial to understanding the work of Sottsass, who would have been 100 this year (he died a decade ago, in 2007). Best known as the ringleader of Memphis, the short-lived and wildly patterned design collective that defines 1980s style, Sottsass was perpetually tweaking the nose of modernism while embracing its machines, its manufacturers, and even its colors.
He built totems like standing stones while travelling like a nomad, made plastic rare by putting it into the hands of skilled craftsmen. He made expensive objects of dubious tastewhile seeking to make furniture that “is of absolutely no importance to us.” He owned his contradictions; Sottsass curates himself.
And, at a moment when we seem inundated with lookalike, lightweight, and taste-neutral furniture, Sottsass is back. His centennial is the ostensible reason for a crop of retrospective exhibitions (seriously, who started keeping track of these birthdays?)—in Venice, at the Met, at the Vitra Design Museum, at the Milan Triennale, at the Stedelijk next year—but in fact, it’s more than time to celebrate a designer who thought more about our emotional attachment to things than how to make an ergonomic seat.
His earliest Tower-furniture was made for the apartment of Mario Tchou, engineer of the Elea. The Met now owns a particularly fine piece from that apartment, made of lacquered and gold-leafed wood, which resembles the meeting of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Japanese domestic architecture.
In each room at the Met Breuer retrospective, some Sottsass object reaches toward Marcel Breuer’s waffled ceiling, challenging the architecture to keep up. It’s only in the galleries on the north side, where one of Breuer’s windows intrudes, that the room’s angles compete with that of their contents.
Consider, for example, the possibility of storing all of your worldly goods in one of Sottsass’s striped laminate Superboxes. Throughout the exhibition, the curator pairs Sottsass subjects with other objects from the Met’s collection, making visual connections between the designer’s shapes and precedents both ancient (Egyptian amulets from 664-30 BC), and contemporary (Studio Job circa 2009).