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Ettore Sottsass 1917–2007

Iconoclast designer Ettore Sottsass died in Milan on December 31, 2007, at the age of 90. Sottsass pioneered the use of emotionally appealing colors and ergonomics that transformed industrial products into must-have consumer friendly objects. When his bright red portable Valentine typewriter, created for Olivetti (with British designer Perry King), hit the stores on February 14, 1969, it became an instant Pop icon and helped push Italy to the forefront of contemporary design. With the popular success of Memphis, the design collective he co-founded in 1980, Sottsass became the face of international postmodernism; his exuberantly colored and patterned furniture, ceramics, tableware and glassware poked fun at the sobriety and rigidity of Bauhaus modernism with playful, illogical shapes and references to mythology. In his quest to imbue the objects of daily life with meaning, he questioned every standard approach. “A table may need four legs to function,” he once said, “but no one can tell me that the four legs have to look the same.”

Born in Innsbruck, Austria, Sottsass received his architecture degree from Turin Polytechnic in 1939. An amateur painter, he was also inspired by Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Kandinsky, as well as the Surrealists, who awakened his life-long attraction to vivid color and organic forms. Given the bleak economic scene in postwar Italy, Sottsass, like many of his peers, turned from architecture to design. He opened his first studio in Milan in 1947.

In 1957, Olivetti took a chance on Sottsass when the company hired him to design for its new electronics division. His first project was to redesign the Elea 9003 (1959), Italy’s first commercially produced mainframe computer. Hailed for its innovative color-coding and ease of use, the design won Italy’s prestigious Compasso d’Oro award for outstanding industrial design.
During the ‘50s, Sottsass began receiving commissions from Raymor, the New York distributor of modern home furnishings, and spent a short time in designer George Nelson’s studio. He also took the position of art director for the fledgling Italian furniture company Poltronova, for which he would later go on to design some of his best known furniture, such as the colorful Superbox cabinets (1968). He also developed a philosophy of “anti-design,” and a belief that mainstream design can truly be transformed only by an outsider.

In the early 1980s, Sottsass co-founded the renegade Memphis design collective to produce provocative pieces that could be mass-marketed. The media frenzy that followed the collective’s inaugural exhibition in Milan in 1981 catapulted Sottsass to international stardom and helped make Memphis a financial success.

In the last two years, Sottsass’s work has been the subject of several important exhibitions, notably a major survey at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2006 and one at the Design Museum, London, last year, that he designed himself.
Sottsass’s conviction that design should evoke emotion and communicate meaning paved the way for the work of designers like Philippe Starck, Ron Arad and Karim Rashid. Driven by his irreverent spirit and curiosity, Sottsass was always reinventing himself, and, in the process, he reinvigorated design. 
-Stephanie Balkal

Jens Quistgaard 1919–2008

Jens Harald Quistgaard, the man whose timeless tabletop designs for Dansk were must-haves for three generations of Americans, died at his home in Vordingborg, Denmark, on January 4. He was 88. While Quistgaard’s only formal training was at the hands of his sculptor father and a short apprenticeship at Georg Jensen, his work was appreciated the world over, winning the prestigious Lunning Prize for design excellence and six gold medals at the Milan Triennale.

Suave and timeless, Quistgaard’s designs for Dansk were hugely influential from the moment they were brought to the United States by American entrepeneur Ted Nierenberg, beginning in 1954. The company’s first offering was a teakwood-handled flatware pattern called Fjord, an instant best-seller that remained in the line for 30 years.

Next came Købenstyle, a line of brightly colored cook-and-serve ware that took enameled steel out of Grandma’s kitchen and dressed it up for the dining room. Beautifully shaped, with cross-handled lids that doubled as trivets, Købenstyle’s fluid grace was achieved by enameling its surface so thickly that the enamel flowed into every crevice, giving its separately-applied handles the illusion of being all one piece with the cookware’s body.

In 1958, Quistgaard designed a line of teakwood objects using a new process he termed “staving,” after the construction method used for barrels: laminating strips of teak together with newly available epoxy glues. This produced a more attractive grain pattern and less waste of expensive teak than turning a single piece of wood with a lathe. The line included a tall teak ice bucket shaped like a conga drum, a dramatically flared salad bowl, and a “serving grid” with glass relish dishes whose square feet locked into the tray.

Quistgaard designed for Dansk into the 1980s, having great success with his “Designs with Light” collection of candleholders in cast iron, silverplate, brass and crystal. The candleholder line revealed Quistgaard’s flair for merchandising; most of the designs used a very slender candle called a Tiny Taper, requiring the consumer to return to Dansk for refills.

Jens Quistgaard was more than a designer and entrepeneur; he was also an excellent engineer. His working drawings for Dansk showed not only how his objects should look, but exactly how they were to be manufactured. His work is seen today at the Louvre, the Museum of Modern Art, the Louisiana, in Denmark, and in countless homes of people who bought their Dansk new years ago, or who are collecting it today for the first time. 
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