Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Design Radical

The retrospective of Ettore Sottsass at the Met Breuer boasts a subtitle: Design Radical. Unfortunately, the radical aspect of the great master’s work is something not explained, not emphasized, and ultimately not clear in the context of this surprisingly conventional exhibition.

I remember seeing Ettore Sottsass’ last produced ceramic vases in an exhibition in Cologne a few months after the legendary designer’s death in 2007. 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: it resembles a traffic cone rendered in plain bathroom porcelain. From the functional point of view, 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, Sottsass seems to say, and he provides his “decoration”: a functionless porcelain block in trendy chartreuse-green color, 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 if you find it so annoying, ­Sottsass seems to imply.

However, if you mentally imagine this object without the green block, the entire vase seems to lose its interest, or raison d’etre. The decorative element may be absurd, yet it is absolutely essential for the object’s appeal. 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 does not have much meaning at all.

In fact, Ettore Sotssass' entire creative life was devoted to proving this simple thesis. I wish the Met exhibition was able to bring this notion straight to the visitors, especially to young design students of today. The new generations should be able to see Sottsass not as a whimsical post-modernist but as a true and timeless Design Radical.


(This post is based on my old blog entry of 2008)

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