How a Pop Art typewriter inspired the iPod
Italian design genius Ettore Sottsass drew on Dylan, Beats and bubble lamps to create work that influences furniture design, windmills and computers.
Pop Art, beatniks and George Nelson
In the 1950s, Italian architect Ettore Sottsass went to work in America for designer George Nelson and rejoiced in his mentor’s kitsch bubble lamps. He was even more taken with the colourful vibrancy of Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art and the way Beat poets such as Allan Ginsberg (who became a friend) defied conventional ideas of good taste.
In Europe, decoration and colour had fallen out of fashion in design and architecture. The dominant modernist Bauhaus school emphasised plain, smooth surfaces and forms unrelieved by ‘unnecessary’ design elements.
Emboldened by his experiences in America, when Sottsass returned to Italy he designed the famous red Valentine typewriter. Created with Perry King for Olivetti in 1969, Valentine looked like it was meant to feature in a Lichtenstein painting.
Trailblazing for Apple - before Apple even existed
Sottsass wanted to demolish prejudices about office equipment with the Valentine’s Pop Art styling. Thirty years later, the iMac did the same for the personal computer.
Sottsass experimented with ways to differentiate computers back in the 1950s (with Elea, the first Olivetti mainframe computer) and with unusual materials such as plastics. His adverts for Valentine showed models typing away at the beach, a revolutionary vision of portability and eye-catching design that would come to fruition with iBooks and iPods. David M. Kelley, who designed Apple’s first mouse, asked Sottsass to design his home in California. Kelley later founded the pioneering American design thinking company IDEO with Bill Moggridge, who also revered Sottsass.
Bob Dylan’s influential Memphis blues
11 December 1980. A group of designers met in Sottsass’s Milan apartment to discuss freeing design from the tyranny of smart, soulless good taste by using new materials, bright colours and kitsch motifs. Their movement needed a name.
When the record player kept getting stuck on the words “Memphis blues again” in the Bob Dylan song – Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again – Sottsass said: “Okay let’s call it Memphis.” The name – redolent of Dylan, blues, Elvis and Egypt – stuck. Memphis owed a lot to Studio Alchymia, an Italian group founded in the 1970s by designer and journalist Alessandro Mendini, that focused on surface and decoration but didn’t make its designs commercially available.
If one product epitomises Memphis it is Sottsass’s Casablanca cabinet. Revelling in form and texture, the Casablanca is a work of playful genius. Wowed by Sottsass, Studio Job, the up-and-coming design studio run by the Dutch/Belgian couple Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel, today designs objects with flair, craft and humour that appeal to consumers bored with the predictability induced by globalisation and the earnestness induced by environmental crisis.
Smeets’ new Robber Baron range, designed exclusively for New York design gallery Moss, pays obvious homage to the Casablanca cabinet.
Porcelain bells, colourful lamps and office furniture
Once mocked as the movement that invented the “who cares if it’s uncomfortable, look at all the great photographs” school of chair design, Memphis – like Sottsass – is now back in fashion. The movement’s vibrant colours and art influences are reflected in the untitled lamps launched last autumn by British designer Karen Styles that are a little Pop Art, a bit kitsch and very Memphis. At the 2008 Milan Furniture Fair, the giant replicas of ornamental porcelain bells exhibited by Dutch industrial designer Marcel Wanders paid homage to Memphis.
Sottsass has also inspired more practical designs. The knives, desks, forks, spoons and bookshelves he designed (for Alessi among others) still sell in their thousands. Michele De Lucchi, one of his Memphis collaborators, launched a range of adaptable workplace furniture called Tutti for British office furniture giant Haworth in 2001. Not as out there as the red typewriter, but friendlier and more fun than most products of their kind.
Article first published in Design Council Magazine, Issue 5, Winter 2008
Robber Baron cabinet: Corbis
Casablanca cabinet by Sottsass: Corbis
Ettore Sottsass portrait: Corbis