Saturday, April 7, 2007

Stuck Inside the Design Museum with the Memphis Blues Again

Review: Ettore Sotsass - Work In Progress, Design Museum, London.

The publicity photo for this exhibition of the work of Italian designer Ettore Sottsass shows him wearing a pair of enormous circular sun glasses, sporting long hair and an impressive moustache, cigarette smoke billowing around him. Such iconic ‘60’s grooviness is in shortly supply in the exhibition itself, which is disappointingly sober.

Titled Work in Progress - presumably to confound any assumption that this retrospective marks the end of his career – the exhibition nonetheless covers Sottsass’ work to date. It is loosely divided into decade based periods starting with the early industrial looking pieces of the 1950’s, moving through the landmark ‘60’s designs for Olivetti, the ‘70’s and ‘80’s Memphis years and ends with the current work by Sotssass Associati.

Sottsass has undoubtedly been a hugely influential designer. This can be seen most clearly in two phases of his career; the 1960’s period when he incorporated pop art influences into the industrial designs he did for Olivetti (most famously in the iconic bright red Velentine typewriter) and the 1980’s when he was instrumental in setting up the Memphis design group. Whilst the Olivetti work sits pretty comfortably within the history of design, the latter has proved more problematic, and, for me at least, more interesting. Memphis’ designs were a fairly bracing combination of kitsch patterns (leopard print, fake wood grain), tasteless colours (gold, silver and primary shades) and everyday materials (formica) combined with exotic neo-primitive forms (ziggaruts, totem poles). The resulting objects, part abstract and part figurative, were very strange indeed. Apart from having a fairly cavalier relationship to function, they combined high design with deliberate bad taste. Memphis, like the post-modern architecture it mirrored, is now synonymous with the 1980’s, a skeleton in design’s closet.

Despite this I found the exhibition strangely underwhelming. There are relatively few pieces but the serpentine route created by the layout makes it seem cluttered and deny the larger objects - like Factotum (1979) - much room to breathe. There is very little visual context provided and no attempt to create an atmosphere sympathetic to Sottsass’s aesthetic. Some period advertising for the Valentine typewriter is exhibited including a poster showing a woman carrying one whilst running along an empty beach - presumably to a spot where someone’s conveniently left a few reams of A4 paper – but that’s about it.

Somewhere along the line, the exhibition seems to run out of steam. Perhaps it’s not helped by the fact that the recent work of Sottsass Associati seems pretty unremarkable. This is by far the driest section of the exhibition and consists of large scale boxes showcasing light fittings and furnishings. It looks like a trade stand at 100% design and even the curators seem to have given up the ghost by this point.

Sottsass’ career is, taken as a whole, incredibly impressive. Throughout its formidable length, he has managed to combine a sharp design sensibility with a sense of humour and a willingness to avoid the suffocating effects of too much good taste. The show however has no such qualities and represents a thin and largely colourless profile of a remarkable career.

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