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An interview with Ettore Sottsass on Design Management in commerce


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My appointment with Ettore Sottsass was made for me by Cristina Franchi, Alberto Alessi’s personal assistant, it was for 10.30am on the 23rd October 2001. It was a smoggy cum clear morning in Milano (in my four weeks there we found the air to be Beijingish….) and full of anticipation I left the 13th floor of Daniel’s Palace, the Milano Politecnico, residence, to walk the 3 blocks to what I had thought would be the Atelier Sottsass. The address I had from Cristina was via Melone, 2, but my Michelin directory had no Melone, but did have one via Melloni… so I thought I must have taken it down wrongly…..  but when I got there I realised I hadn’t because number 2 was a large derelict building….   You always have to take a second look in Italy because most buildings have an element of dereliction about them, but it had a sign that said……..    so even the Hard Porn cinema had moved out….

It was 10.15am and time was ticking, so out came the trusty tourist map and yes it had a via Melone, why didn’t I go simple the first time but it was a walk, a real walk, more like a hike. To cab it or not…? No it would not be quicker so off I set, swaggling along hips some 2 feet behind me….

I arrived at Atelier Sottsass at 10.40am in a sweat, but arrived and found a calm gentile Ettore Sottsass sitting in a large work room / office with hung padded walls and just a few really fine pieces spread around. He looked at me from his desk, his eyes greeted me so I sort of by passed the reception and went into his office.

We greeted each other, no he didn’t remember me from Sydney in the 70’s and when I told him my Melloni / Melone story he said to me; “I suppose it was a brothel…?”  “No just and Hard Porn cinema” I replied.

It wasn’t hard to get Ettore Sottsass talking he has much to say, and it comes from that real design practice experience those over 50 years of good and bad times, you can feel it. Before I could get into a question, straight from my introduction he said, let me say something: “I have stopped designing for industry, mass manufacturing industry has become too aggressive, too aggressively business oriented, less ethical and less cultural”

I explained to Sottsass, a little more my proposed line of questioning and at this he responded that he would like to talk in general at first.

You remember he said, I worked at Olivetti, in Olivetti at one time the designers and management sat at the same table and the designers had real power, we were telling management what to do, what direction to take. Design is supposed to be an intellectual practice, that cares for life, the well being of people. Today we live in an industrial culture, not an agricultural culture, an industrial culture that has a sort of destiny – which is, we produce many products, and so we have to sell them, so we put into motion all methods to push people to buy. We now live in a communication culture, advertising, we use sex to be able to sell, we use body image, we are going into a barbaric era, a Genghis Khan era ….  To conquer, industry is pillaging the air, the earth, the water, they don’t care. They are burning the books, they don’t care for thinking they care for making money and immediately, it IS a barbaric system.

Me, I am put into the world of the gallery with my design, calling me artist or even maestro (which I hate). I am living in an underground world, like some young people do! So why not…! I tell these people (young people) if you really don’t care for money, don’t know what it means, then money becomes offended and it runs after you. They say if you want a girl, don’t show that you like her…..

And so from here we began the questions I had prepared many of which had already been half answered.

Q            Do, in your view the majority of commercial organisations recognise design as a discipline to be managed specifically? If yes, how is it recognised? Identified?

A            Yes they are trying to manage design, but with no ethics, and they are trying to manage me, and they wont succeed. The word design is like the word literature, what does it mean? Design for life, balance design against industry. Can you manage poetry…..?

Q            In a way… Alberto Alessi would say; yes you can!

A            I even don’t like his new direction, it is conditioned by the situation. I guess yes and no, they do another type of design for industry. I work for some industries that are much more careful, like the lighting firm Zumtober. We are working well together, designing light culture, not just products. We are considering the problem of light, natural light, light for love, light for the office.

I have told him I will not work for you, designing for only selling only, for sales. There are some commercial men that are design oriented who understand their product but they are rare. Anybody who makes a fire lighter out of plastic cannot be serious… I have told Alberto so.

Q            Do you believe art or design is considered by management to be important to the profitable / efficient operation of commercial organisations

A            Again yes! That is why they want to manage design. But what they want is a provisory seduction, a spectacular seduction, industry wants design for 10 years, they don’t want to say ‘forever’.

Q            What are the cultural and social issues directly affecting design decisions you made in design projects in commercial organisations?   Do you  articulated these to your clients prior to undertaking a project?

A            They the clients, come to me, but after a very short time I understand what type they are – I had one client, a manufacturer of furniture, I recognised that he has an attitude, he respects his public, but he then asked me to design expensive products, and so he puts me into an ethical crisis. Today research is very expensive, so what should I do, express something for the poor people or should I think society has only rich people. If I design for poor people I would be Ikea. Ethically I don’t believe we should give poor people poor products. Poor people should also enjoy life.

I can do profound meaningful design – suggest a ritualistic relationship between people and objects, then I am successful. The bowl I bought in India has meaning to me. A bowl could be gold, and it could be plastic it then has different meanings.

I don’t try to educate, because I am the first to be educated. I do sometimes tell clearly what is right, I suggest a book to read, I tell them what I think they should do.

Q            Do you think design and art are considered by commercial organisations to be a cultural issue or just a business activity?

A            What is culture?  It is a group of thoughts that a group of people have. Is life a continuity or is it a random comedy like Italy. (theartre delle’arte). To some people culture is a particular knowledge. I like football because the coach is telling the team the plan, but it never happens, because of the other team, so he has to restart the program regularly.

No, normally they think design and art are just to sell, It is interesting that the Koran says that you should not sell something that you don’t know its origin, it is putting some ethics under business, design can do that.

Q            Do you believe in general commercial organisations feel that they have a cultural role within the community? and do you believe that they believe that they can use design and art to assist in fulfilling this role…..?

ES: They don’t believe it, but they have it. Industry, commerce, technology give culture but they don’t have a plan or an awareness.

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At the end I asked Sottsass, considering his views whether he ever became depressed or unhappy with the world….  he said  “no! the only way forward is that we should all become Budhists, I am not saying I am one, but we should all become Budhists… because they know how to live with fragility, how to live with uncertainty, to live not with heroism.’

Sottsass showed me the draft of a book that is soon to be published and on one page under a drawing of a blank space was written, and I paraphrase:

“Today Ettore Sottsass designed a blank space that has no text, has no sex, no naked women, has no colour it is just white. It is understood he may go to prison.”

We concluded our interview and parted, he to his practice which was buzzing with young people who all seemed to speak 3 languages and me to the streets of Milan, to reflect on my view that design is a highly intellectual, highly philosphical, highly ethical practice, and certainly Ettore Sottsass thinks so.

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