A New Ettore Sottsass Survey Celebrates the Italian Designer’s Embrace of Color and Play

The nascent New York gallery Raisonné has compiled a 50-year survey of brash and joyful furniture and objets by the design legend.

Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass. Photo: Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis via Getty Images.

Just in time for New York’s design week, the SoHo gallery Raisonné has unveiled a sweeping five-decade survey of the late revolutionary Italian architect and designer, Ettore Sottsass. A maestro of brash, vivid color, no one quite saw the world like him, nor the possibilities of material and shape.

a modern glass sculpture sits atop a desk

An Ettore Sottsass glasswork sits atop a custom desk. Photo: Jeffrey Graetsch, courtesy of Raisonné.

Sottsass’s (1917–2007) vision was often playful, sometimes garish, but never boring. “I design without rhyme or reason,” Sottsass said in a 1993 interview with Azure. “I don’t even know why I design. I design because I have this disease of the pencil. Because it comes to me. I do it because it’s my destiny.” His range is fully on display here. “Shapes, Colors, and Symbols” runs through June 29.

a metal chalice with zig zag legs sits atop a plinth by the designer Ettore Sottsass

An iconic Ettore Sottsass piece. Photo: Jeffrey Graetsch, courtesy of Raisonné.

“We are both obsessed with him and thought he was undervalued and under-appreciated,” said Debbie August, Raisonné co-founder. “He has such a depth of character, whether it’s architecture or furniture or glassware or ceramics.”

Sottsass was a founder of the Memphis Group (and even coined its sobriquet)—a collective that came to be known for its bright, unorthodox designs—but he was so ahead-of-his time that some of his most quintessentially 1980s pieces were, in fact, from the 1950s.

modern glass sculptures sit atop white plinths

An installation view of “Shapes, Colors, and Symbols.” Photo: Zach Pontz, courtesy of Raisonné.

August and her partner in the gallery Jeffrey Graetsch have been working for over a year to assemble a broad swath of Sottsass’s oeuvre, mainly from Italy. “Every time we unbox something it’s exciting,” August said.

More than 100 pieces are on display, and more is on the way. “We’re still overwhelmed and digesting it!” said Graetsch. “It’s unreal. These are things that you just don’t get a chance to see. And hopefully no one will knock them over.”

a colorful purple legged desk is in foreground with colorful glass sculptures strewn about a gallery

An installation view of “Shapes, Colors, and Symbols.” Photo: Zach Pontz, courtesy of Raisonné.

Included in the show are functional objects, like an Olivetti typewriter (he designed the first portable one, the “Valentine”) and one-of-a-kind tables, as well a series of fascinating glass totems inspired Native American katsina dolls. To Sottsass, they symbolized “the unknown in our existence in the universe.”

Valentine typewriter for Olivetti by designers Italian Ettore Sottsass and British Perry A King, 1969. Photo: Indianapolis Museum of Art/Getty Images.

“When I was young, all we ever heard about was func­tion­al­ism, func­tion­al­ism, func­tion­al­ism,” he once said. “It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.”

“Shapes, Colors, and Symbols” is on view at Raisonné 16 Crosby Street, New York, through June 29.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.