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A silver fruit bowl by Ettore Sottsass.

6.

MURMANSK  (1982)

Italian Silver Fruit Bowl by Ettore Sottsass (Italy)

Designed for MEMPHIS Milano srl, Milano, Italia. Manufactured by Rossi e Arcandi, Monticello Conte Otto, Vicenza, under the direction of Cleto Munari / signed/impressed w/ maker’s marks: “MEMPHIS Milano” to tray & lid / Dimensions: Dia 35 x H 30 cm  (14” x 11.75”)

By Keith Johnson.

Beauty is not there.  Beauty does not exist as a static event, petrified in time and space.  Beauty is a convention that recognizes a mysterious balance, a fragile, extremely fragile equilibrium, expressed and unexpressed, between our anxiety about the UNKNOWN that pursues us relentlessly, and our hope of curbing it and calming it, occasionally offering sacrifices to it.

If the sacrifice conforms to the rituals required, the UNKNOWN will — for a moment or two — stop biting. It may even smile and be lit up with a blinding light.

That very brief and sudden light is Beauty .”

– Ettore Sottsass, Jr. 1999

ETTORE SOTTSASS JR. (1917-2007) was perhaps the most important of all twentieth century architects/industrial designers.  Continuously perceived throughout his career as a seminal reference point or barometer of the international design spectrum, he is credited with creating the first electronic calculator design in Italy, as well as  brilliantly hued computer cabinets, amorphic-looking task seating and more for Olivetti, with whom he collaborated for more than 30 years.

With unabated resolve and at 63 years of age (when most architects are living off of their past laurels), this grandee of Italian PostModernism founded the famed MEMPHIS Milano movement – along with a collective of several brilliant, twenty-something collaborators, including Michele De Lucchi, George Sowden, Matteo Thun and Nathalie Du Pasquier. MEMPHIS Milano was a revolutionary movement which was to become one of Sottsass’ most persuasive expressions of “New Radical Design.”

In many ways he was Design’s éminence grise, devoting his life to dismantling the roles of artists, architects, industrial designers, glassmakers, critics, theoreticians and ceramicists.  To his way of thinking, functionalism was a form of stagnancy. “It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.”

Born in Innsbruck in his mother’s native Austria in 1917, his parents moved to Turin in 1929 because it boasted the best architecture faculty in Italy – it was his father’s wishes that he gain a degree in architecture, which he did in 1939.

No sooner had he graduated from the Politecnico di Torino than he was conscripted into Mussolini’s Italian army – only to spend most of World War II in a Yugoslavian concentration camp. “There was nothing courageous or enjoyable about the ridiculous war I fought in,” Sottsass later wrote. “We learned nothing from it. It was a complete waste of time.”

After the war, he worked on housing projects before moving to Milan to curate a craft exhibition at the Triennale in 1946.  This quickly led Sottsass to continue pursuing his passion for painting, writing for Domus (Gio Ponti’s preeminent art & architectural magazine), designing stage sets and founding a practice as an architect and industrial designer.

In 1956, Sottsass traveled to New York for the first time. “It really did look like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – everybody rushing around, no one caring a hoot,” he recalled. “It was incredible, in fact, I changed inside out.”

Throughout the 1960s, Sottsass traveled in the US and India while remaining a central figure in the Italian avant garde and designing more landmark products for Olivetti, culminating in the bright red, poppy plastic 1970 Valentine typewriter.   Ultimately, Sottsass dismissed the Valentine as “too obvious, a bit like a girl wearing a very short skirt and too much make-up” but it will forever be seen as the iconic POP product.  His furniture designs of this period were also particularly pivotal, most notably his “SUPERBOX” living closets in striped plastic laminates for the early vanguard Florentine company Poltronova.

Enlarge an image by clicking on it.

But by all accounts, he truly came to the fore with MEMPHIS in 1981. It embodied all of the themes which Sottsass had been experimenting since the 1960’s-1979’s: bright colours, an adoration of cultural kitsch, motifs lifted from  suburban life and particularly, cheap mass-market products such as plastic laminates commingled with over-refined materials like marble, rare-wood laminates, silver, gold-leafing, goofy-looking light bulbs, etc.

All of this captured the attention of the mass media, design cognoscenti, museum curators and art collectors, and eventually a world audience, as well.  Named by Sottsass after a Bob Dylan song (“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”), it was immediately hailed as the design of the future.

FOR YOUNG DESIGNERS of the era, it was an intellectual lightning rod, liberating them from the by-then barren tenets of Modernism in favour of a less-restricted, increasingly fluid conceptual pathway towards dealing with the polyvalence of the late twentieth century. In fact, it was quickly designated the “New International Style” by the brilliant MEMPHIS chronicler and Italian art critic Barbara Radice.  Inevitably, the MEMPHIS Collective’s work was exhibited all over the world, until Sottsass quit in early 1987.

He then concentrated his focus on Sottsass Associati, an architecture and design firm he created  with several former MEMPHIS members and other younger collaborators.  The company was quickly commissioned to design a chain of shops for Esprit, a series of private houses – including one in Palo Alto for David Kelley, the designer of the  computer mouse and the ACELA super trains – and public buildings, most notably the new Malpensa 2000 airport near Milan, as well as projects for Apple, NTT, Philips and Siemens.

But the artist who resided within Sottsass’ limitless psyche continued to challenge and instigate new premises within the realms most passionate for him: vanguard furniture, artisanal projects in glass and ceramics, amazing iconoclastic lights. Even fruit bowls.

One 90-year lifetime for this genius was hardly enough.

THE MURMANSK SILVER fruit bowl was an early ‘80s Sottsass design for MEMPHIS Milano, crafted as an alternative to standard bourgeois tastes of the time (Tiffany, Bulgari, Cartier, Puiforcat).  Despite its extraordinary geometric beauty (recall Art Deco, Constructivism, with ambiguous eastern and Third World overtones, and POP imagery),  it still manages to glisten and beckon the eye in a cool, detached manner.

Named after the exotic Russian port of Murmansk near Siberia – a place of icy coldness – it evokes feelings of intellectual isolation and inaccessibility, almost a battle cry towards the eschewing of such precious objects (in a way, then, very emblematic of its proletarian Soviet namesake) – and thus, a subversive icon of the first order. 

Manufacturer:    MEMPHIS Milano srl, Milano, Italia.

Production:        1982 (designed circa 1981)

 ♦


Keith Rennie Johnson is the President and Director of Urban Architecture, Inc., in Brooklyn, NY. The gallery features important twentieth century visual and avant-garde decorative art and for 20 years has been the leading US dealer for Memphis Milano and Museo Alchimia.

Elsewhere: Richard Virgilio interviews Keith Rennie Johnson at The BPlot blog.

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One Comment

  1. I am a Memphis design collector and enjoyed this article about Memphis and Sottsass’ “Murmansk”. It is an iconic Memphis design as is his “Carlton” and “Casablanca” bookcases for first year 1981 pieces.

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    Wednesday, 14 November 2012 at 02:21 | Permalink

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