A Polymathic Italian Designer, With Muses and Friends

During his 60-year career, Sottsass Jr. designed office systems (including the shell of the Olivetti mainframe computer, from 1957 to 1959) and systems for simplified living, as well, that were intended to discourage consumption. His Superbox, for example, designed in 1966, was an outhouse-proportioned wardrobe with a surface of plastic laminates of the buyer’s choice — had it been produced. It stands out from the wall like one of Anne Truitt’s painted Minimalist plinths. Complete with its own pedestal that ignored the Minimalist practice, while also complicating its use, it was intended to hold all your carefully winnowed belongings. His experimental Environment units similarly compressed the basic household functions (cooking, sleeping, bathing) into mobile modular cabinets that would link together for moving. At least in theory. They never got beyond the maquette stage and are present here only in a 1972 film that Sottsass made with Massimo Magrì, and two excellent drawings.


Tenebre (Darkness), a series of ceramic vases by Sottsass.

2017 Ettore Sottsass/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

But he also had an obsession with handcrafted glass and especially ceramics, fed by his many trips to India. A grove of Sottsass’s looming ceramic totems, built from cylinders glazed in many colors, are in a gallery painted marigold yellow, alongside tiny Indian stupas with similarly stacked structures. The remaining Sottsass ceramics here mostly lose out to the antiquities, except for the more delicate, Deco-like black-and-silver vases of the Tenebre (Darkness) series from 1963.

Initially a devotee of modernism, Sottsass designed one of its postwar classics: the Olivetti manual typewriter of 1968, intoxicatingly bright and enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art by 1969. Its form-follows-function economy is…

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