Inspiration can come from everywhere and at any time. We can be inspired by anything: by finding solutions to deep societal challenges, the bright colour of a leaf or in the work of the curious and unconventional.
Going through a design education in Italy can be very confronting. As an Italian designer, I have quite heavy emotional baggage from old-school “Made in Italy” designers. I have never felt comfortable with the legacies left by the great masters – I admire them, but I could never relate to them.
The only ‘master’ I feel close to, in terms of mindset and life approach, is the rebellious and poetic designer Ettore Sottsass. Since childhood, one of my biggest inspirations has been the beautiful, colourful and punk objects he designed throughout his entire life.
Marking the centenary of Ettore Sottsass’ birth (Innsbruck 1917-2007 Milan), many publications, books and exhibitions celebrate Sottsass and his work. The Triennale Design Museum in Milan presented a monographic exhibition devoted to him called There is a Planet and design company Vitra celebrates his legacy with the Ettore Sottsass, Rebel and Poet exhibition at its Basel campus in Switzerland.
What I find inspiring is how he used design to challenge mindsets and give a totally new perspective on industrial design. Everything he designed has a story, make sense and gives meaning to people.
For me, Sottsass’ best works are: The Valentine Typewriter (1968) by Olivetti. It is the first democratic, affordable typewriter meant for “working from home” as it’s portable and designed “so as not to remind anyone of the monotonous working hours”. It’s created for the new generation who care and appreciate design just as much as function in a technical tool, similar to what Apple did a few years later with portable computers. The packaging is fully integrated with the object itself and the matte finish, which looks like leather, is almost as important as the machine itself. In terms of democratic, portable and detail-oriented design, it also reminds us of INDEX: Award Finalists One Laptop per Child and Bento Lab.
The Carlton Bookcase (1981) is the icon of ’80s post-modernist Memphis Group. It’s inspired by Sottsass’ travels in Asia and represents a new approach to design that broke the rules of functionalism. It’s hard to define in terms of function and design and was not intending to fit in a labelled box. It seems impractical for book storage but can be seen as a room divider or a chest of drawers. It reminds us of the totem culture, as well as a stickman with open harms or a colourful insect ready to fly away. The aim of the Memphis Group was to produce everyday objects with a different aesthetic, form and design. The designers turned all of the existing parameters of living upside down and wanted to challenge both the minimalism and functionalism trends. The objects were deliberately non-intellectual and not-functional but celebrating normality and banality in a mass society by abolishing the creative and commercial limits of the design world.
Last but not least, all of Sottsass’ books, journals and documented thoughts. They provide a closer look at his unconventional and nomad life, his romantic love stories and his inspiration-seeking travels around the world.
“If you think you’re meeting your destiny on the other side of a door you may not be interested in its design.” Ettore Sottsass, Barbara Radice (1988).