The Italian legend and figurehead of Memphis, Ettore Sottsass is featured prominently among the giants of design in Vitra’s current exhibition “Home Stories: 100 Years, 20 Visionary Interiors” and the subject of his own touring showcase last year. His immense impact is not easily encapsulated. Ever the rebel and with a career spanning more than five decades, Sottsass designed everything from typewriters for Olivetti and a seemingly irrational bookshelf to mysterious cabinets and even a bus shelter – each with a critical eye towards consumption, production and the role objects play in everyday life.
Now, as designers look to find new ways of practicing in an increasingly volatile economic, political and social climate, it’s his insistence on the limits of rationalism that continues to feel strikingly emergent. As he told Azure almost three decades ago, logic can only take you so far, before the only option left is to embrace the instability of chaos.
This story, from Azure’s archives, has never before been published online. It’s one of many exclusive interviews we are making available on the occasion of our 35th anniversary.
- Ettore Sottsass
My design colleagues in the media have been asking me what I mean when I said I am unable to understand logic anymore – or even the world situation, politically, socially, financially etc. Maybe I can’t because I’m old or maybe it’s because the world is heading towards a system of logic that is evidently very new and of which I don’t understand the process. Not only, but I have arrived at the same point as some scientists who think that the universe itself lives in a state of chaos in which there are more moments of unbalance than organized moments. It’s clear that in this chaos there are organized moments but every so often, but the quantity of unorganized moments its greater.
Are you referring to the social level?
This is at the level of everyday life. In my life I know that the mysterious moments are more numerous than clear ones. If I fall in love with a girl, there are more moments in which I don’t understand what is happening than ones in which I do. There are more moments in which I can’t make any plans for the future, or even understand the present, than moments in which I can. I’m saying this with respect to love but I could say this for everything: my profession, for my body. The moments in which I don’t understand the logic are more numerous than the ones in which I do. So what happens – if I have to divide time into separate moments that have no connection with each other, each of these moments, as soon as it’s over, seems like a ruin to me. It represents a temporary balance, an instantaneous balance. As soon as I’ve understood it, another has already arrived and I already don’t understand the first one anymore…What is a ruin? A ruin is a house that no longer has its logic, of which you no longer understand the logic. This is not just a personal idea, scientists are also discussing the idea of chaos and not just in an approximate way as I am doing.
What about the laws of mathematics and music?
Mathematics, is, to begin with, a provisional balance. If you are in love with someone you aren’t going to get far with mathematics. If you have cancer – maybe they’ll treat you via mathematics, but these processes are very ambiguous; it’s not so clear.
Then it’s wrong to think that you were referring to consumerism or product design that threatens to submerge the world?
Indirectly this counts as well because product design believes itself to have certainty. My relationship with industry has sometimes been very chaotic and irrational, vis-à-vis their processes. You see companies that seen solid, that appear to have done their forecasting, that have computers and mathematics, companies like General Motors, which suddenly lay off thousands of workers – what kind of science is this? In the whole world you cant’ understand anything anymore. Russia – after forty years of philosophical, economic and political certainty, in three days a total disaster occurs. War in all directions. The more we go ahead the less we understand, the more it appears that the rational process is valid only for certain narrow sectors – its not an absolute.
How do you apply this stuff when you are thinking of designing an object?
When I’m in an airplane thing come to mind and I design. I design without rhyme or reason; 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. And this isn’t something that refers just to me – but to the whole world…It isn’t that rationalism should be neglected, but it must take a more modest attitude…you can no longer believe that rationalism is the answer to everything.
This interview originally appeared as “Last Words” in the May / June 1993 issue of Azure.
Today, the iconic Italian designer is the subject of a number of exhibitions. In the early ’90s, Azure’s Nelda Rodger sat down with Ettore Sottsass to talk about the limits of rationalism and so much more. Read this story from Azure’s archives that has never before been published online.