Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) – Design effervescence



Ettore Sottsass, guru of counter-current design, died on 31 December 2007. Born 90 years earlier in Austria, Sottsass lived in Turin after 1929 and obtained a diploma from the Ecole Polytechnique in 1939. Following in the footsteps of his father, he chose to study architecture. He opened his own architects’ practice in Milan at the relatively young age of thirty and then left for the United States in 1956 where he began conceiving prefabricated houses working with George Nelson. At the end of the 1950s, he also began to make an impression with his design work and started signing numerous contracts with firms like Poltronova, Alessi and Olivetti. In 1959 he received the prestigious Compasso d’Oro prize for his computer entitled “Elea 9003”.

What were the keys to his success? Energetic designs, tinged with humour, often irreverent to prevailing standards and exuding both spirituality and humanism. An enemy of standardised design, he proposed sensual and expressive objects as an antidote to an era dominated by modernist rationalism.His predilection for the experimental combined with the influence of Hinduism led him down a path of “cross fertilisation” very much in keeping with oriental culture: he practiced a wide variety of artistic disciplines (architecture, photography, design, painting, sculpture, ceramics, glassblowing, jewellery), mixing cultural references (Indian, Chinese, Western, noble and popular cultures), combining different styles and fusing materials in a poetical and unexpected way.

Since the beginning of 2008, numerous articles and exhibitions have paid tribute to Ettore Sottsass around the world, and auction sales of his work have also accelerated. On 22 April 2008, the action house Pierre Bergé et associés dedicated an entire session to him with a sale at their Brussels branch entitled “Focus on Ettore Sottsass”. The prices covered a very wide spectrum, with ceramics at several hundred euros and rarer pieces going for between 20 and 50 thousand euros. There were also pieces of furniture on sale for 2 to 3 thousand euros such as the « ivorY » pedestal table and the « treetops » floor lamp.
Numerous small ceramic vases, boxes and cups created by Édition Bitossi, as well as two polished pewter vases produced by Serafino Zani went under the hammer for between 250 and 1,000 euros. His limited edition works fetch higher prices. Small ceramic objects produced in small series of roughly 30 pieces attracted prices nearer to 5,000 euros such as the small « Merlo » boxes of which 33 pieces exist (plus 4 artist’s proofs) that sold for 4,200 euros, or the « Civetta » vase, a larger piece from the same series, that sold for 6,000 euros (Pierre Bergé et associés).

In order to ritualise domestic life, Sottsass invested his creations with symbolic value. His series of monumental ceramic totems are veritable achievements on a technical level. Two of these sculptural compositions, made of superimposed pieces, were offered at the Pierre Bergé auction with price estimates of between 20 and 30 thousand euros each. Neither sold in that bracket. However, a month later, an entire collection of five monumental totems entitled « Flavia » sold for 100,000 euros at Tajan in Paris.
At the Brussels sale, Sottsass enthusiasts showed a distinct preference for his more functional creations such as the « mobilo giallo » model cabinet which sold for 16,000 euros and the « Francoforte » model table (limited edition of 16) which sold for 30,000 euros. The highest price at the sale was generated by a monumental « furniture-bar  » (240cm) in Jacaranda which was produced in a limited series of only eight pieces. Estimated at between 40 and 50 thousand euros, it attracted generous bidding and finally sold for 60,000 euros!

Indeed, exceptional pieces of Sottsass furniture usually change hands in the 30 to 100 thousand euros price range, such as his sculptural bookcases, created as invitations to meditation. The most expensive is a bookcase designed in 1965 and created in white lacquered walnut wood with brass fittings. Offered on 4 May 2007 at Christie’s in London, it generated his record sale: £60,000 incl. fees (over 70,000 euros).

A month after the dedicated Pierre Bergé sale, Tajan paid tribute to Sottsass by offering a bookcase from the spectacular milieu of the « Ruins » collection (1992) and which now carries a price tag of 30,000 euros. A week later (27 May 2008) – in Paris again – Christie’s sold the design collection of Anna and Alessandro Pron, including bookcases created for the Mourmans Gallery in Maastricht in 1994 of which there are only 6 examples: the first, « Furniture N.31 », only just reached its low estimate of 30,000 euros (€36,250 incl. fees). A few minutes later, « Furniture N.24 » with asymmetrical shelves in anodised aluminium and supported by a pedestal, triggered furious bidding. Smaller than the first unit, it finally went under the hammer for twice the amount of « Furniture N.31 »!
Among the marvellous pieces on offer at the sale was a series of monumental Capricci glass vases (1998). Each vase, produced in 7 examples, carried an optimistic estimate of 20 to 25 thousand euros; but the Sottsass enthusiasts remained prudent and the works sold in a range of 12 to 18 thousand.

As the founder of the Memphis group, Sottsass is the leading light of radical Italian Design, and pieces from this era (1981-1985) carry particular historical interest.
The emblematic creations of the Memphis group such as the Claustra Carlton bookcase (1981), the Casablanca locker (1981) and the Beverly buffet (1981) are therefore particularly sought after. 1981 is a key year in the history of design (founding of the Memphis group and its first exhibition) and works from that year can trigger serious auction bidding. Buyers are indeed more likely to bid for ‘historic’ pieces than for more recent works.
Hence, different editions of the emblematic Carlton bookcase fetch widely varying prices: the Carlton produced in 1981 and stamped « Memphis Milano E. Sottsass 1981 Made in Italy » sells for around 20,000 euros, whereas later version sell for roughly half that price (11 December 2007, £5,000 incl. fees, at Christie’s London,). The Carlton, described by Alessandro Mendini as an object « conceived in a language of hippies, Hindus, astronauts and past civilisations », has a cult object status which sometimes makes bidders forget the importance of the production date. Hence, certain recently produced pieces, carried by the general interest in the design and Sottsass’s high media profile, manage to command prices approaching that fetched by the ‘historic’ pieces.