Ettore Sottsass: the influence of a playful designer

Ettore Sottsass’ influence on architecture can be seen globally. He also left his mark on design more broadly, and his work continues to inspire and influence contemporary creators today.

Ettore Sottsass was a designer who dared to be different. He challenged the traditional notions of design to create playful, expressive works that showcased bold colors, asymmetrical shapes, and eclectic materials. His playful approach towards design and his boldness are what attract me to his work. He was not afraid to use color, patterns, provocative shapes, and materials such as plastics and polycarbonates in architecture. His work also showed that he was aware of the role and importance that design plays in people’s lives. He gathered inspiration from international and everyday contexts and implemented or imported them into his designs, be they artworks or furniture pieces.

Sottsass’ projects shocked and provoked. They are, at first glance, not timeless; their form, shape, and color have a late seventies or eighties aesthetic. Nevertheless, they have recently resurfaced in different contexts, more so in object and interior design than architecture. His work with the Memphis Group, which he co-founded with Designer and Product Developer George Sowden, left a mark on design history. It was an antidote to the design establishment of the time, which was obsessed with minimalism and mid-century modernism, and averse to the bright prints and hues Sottsass loved so much.

Memphis Again showcasing iconic 80s designs

There was something profoundly influential about the philosophy Ettore Sottsass embraced. It speaks to the importance of including design in everyday life and the necessity of making unique designer objects accessible to people of all backgrounds. His work was multidisciplinary and innovative for his time. His designs challenged technical boundaries, contrasting against the clean, angular aesthetic of the modernist design of the time.

Sottsass and the Memphis Group wanted to break free from the rules that modernism imposed. This rigidity was no longer sufficient to satisfy the needs and changes in society. The strict principles of modernism were holding back the experimentation needed to take a fresh look at what design was all about. As George Sowdon says in More is More by Claire Bingham, “You could argue, as with all events that call into question the validity of established ways, that Memphis was the style of dissent.”

The ACME House in Maui by Ettore Sottsass

Sottsass’ buildings have occasionally been labeled absurd and even hideous at their worst. But at their best, they ushered in a return to the belief in the value of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. Sottsass advocated that every aspect of modern life could be elevated to an aesthetic experience.

His bold influence has spread beyond architecture to fashion, furniture, jewelry, and art. Designers have incorporated Sottsass’ style into their creations while staying true to what is uniquely theirs. His signature can be seen in contemporary designs by Karim Rashid, Dior, and Missoni, who have incorporated bold colors and playful forms into their collections.

He was a designer who brought about a paradigm shift in the design world. His playful expression challenged traditional notions of design and paved the way for the more colorful and eclectic. His influence on international architecture cannot be overstated. The buildings and structures inspired by his work testify to his lasting impact on the field. His multidisciplinary approach, use of bold colors, patterns, and textures, and his philosophy that every aspect of modern life can be elevated to an aesthetic experience have inspired generations and will continue to do so for years.