Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Last Vase

I saw Ettore Sottsass’ last vases in an exhibition in Cologne a few months after the legendary designer’s death. In his late years of life, the master reached an unprecedented clarity of vision. His designs became uncompromising meditations on the essence of objects. A case in point is this remarkable vase for Sevres: perhaps, the most conceptual design object ever made.

The vase itself is a utilitarian vessel, like a traffic cone rendered in plain bathroom porcelain. This is an essential minimum that is needed for holding a bunch of flowers, no more nor less. But what about the decoration? Aren’t vases supposed to have some kind of decorative treatment? Oops, says Sottsass, and he provides his “decoration”: a functionless porcelain block in trendy chartreuse-green, dangling on the side as if an afterthought. This unusual decoration is not even “applied” in any permanent way. Rather, a simple rope with two knots holds is in place. Go ahead, remove it, Sottsass seems to imply, if you find it so annoying.

Now, on the image above, try to cover the green block with your finger and imagine the object without it. The entire vase seems to have disappeared. However absurd this decorative element is, it is absolutely essential for the object’s existence. The functional is connected to the nonfunctional with a precarious umbilical cord. One component feeds and supports the other. And here is the lesson of the master: in our human experience, immaterial things like decoration, color, emotion are as necessary as the function itself; without the former the latter makes no sense.

In fact, Ettore's entire creative life was devoted to proving this simple thesis.