interview: friedman benda exhibits retrospective of pre-memphis ettore sottsass

Friedman Benda explores ETTORE SOTTSASS’ early career

On November 2nd, Friedman Benda opened its latest exhibition, ‘Ettore Sottsass 1947-1974,’ the ninth installment in an ongoing series dedicated to the iconic Italian architect and designer. The show highlights curator Marc Benda’s enduring explorations into Sottsass‘ life and work, and focuses on the early, pre-Memphis period of his career with rare works displayed alongside a collection of original drawings and publications. The exhibition reveals influences from the Jugendstil movement of Austria, where he traces his roots, along with South Asian and American influences that were born from his journeys throughout the regions. The show is a curated threshold to understanding the diverse periods of the designer’s life, further illustrated by an accompanying catalogue and essay penned by independent curator and advisor Simon Andrews.

designboom spoke with Marc Benda during the opening of ‘Ettore Sottsass 1947-1974,’ which is opened from November 2nd — December 16th, 2023 at Friedman Benda Gallery, at 515 West 26th Street, find the interview below!

friedman benda ettore sottsassexhibition view | images © Daniel Kukla

the designer’s evolving vision

Entering the ‘Ettore Sottsass 1947-1974’ exhibition at Friedman Benda’s New York gallery, visitors are greeted by a pair of furniture pieces that diverge from the vibrant style which which the designer is typically associated. They are a 1947-built Entrance Table and Panel from Casa Cittone alongside a large-scale Storage Partition from 1965. 

The Entrance Table and Panel, a collaboration with his father, was among his earliest design projects and was crafted for the interior of Negozio Cittone in Turin. This marked the inception of his journey into furniture design. In the mid-1950s, Sottsass began his long-lasting collaboration with the Florence-based furniture manufacturer Poltronova. It was through this partnership that Sottsass began to develop his unique vision, to not merely to create products but expressive and provocative ideas. The large-scale Storage Partition was part of Sottsass’ ambitious interior design for the Tufarelli residence in Capri in 1965.

friedman benda ettore sottsassearly cabinetry is displayed alongside rare, experimental ceramic works

multi-cultural influences

Friedman Benda displays a selection of Ettore Sottsass’ rare ceramic works which mark a significant shift in his design philosophies — spurred by his travels in India and the United States. In 1961, Sottsass had become critically ill after returning from South Asia and, at the insistence of his collaborator Roberto Olivetti, he was sent to Palo Alto, California for experimental medical treatment. Curator Simon Andrews, in his essay for the exhibition, describes this period of illness as a time of great introspection, where Sottsass began ‘immersing himself in Eastern philosophies and stories of ancient cultures.’ He met Alan Ginsberg in California, and was exposed to the budding counterculture movements of the sixties. He printed his own magazine ‘East 128 Chronicle,’ a reference to his hospital room number.

friedman benda ettore sottsass
original writings, production drawings, and magazine prints are on view

New design motifs, such as stacked totems and stepping ziggurats, reference Indian religious symbols and Aztec sculptures — most notable seen through his collection of ‘Yantra’ ceramics. Notably, the seven-foot-tall ‘Due Menhir e Grande Fallo’ from 1966 is one of only four triptych totems created by Sottsass. Friedman Benda displays this towering work, marking the first time it is shown in a gallery context (it was previously exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the ICA, Miami). All together, the diverse styles and influences of the showcased furniture works tell the story of Ettore Sottsass’ evolving design philosophy over a quarter of a century.friedman benda ettore sottsass
the seven-foot-tall ‘Due Menhir e Grande Fallo,’ 1966, is one of only four of Sottsass’ triptych totems

designboom: What makes Ettore Sottsass’ work so unique and influential?

Marc Benda (MB): It helped that he had sixty years under his belt! What made him so important is that he always followed a very distinct vision. He chose not to follow trends or mainstream influences. He really followed his own his own trajectory — he never stopped.

interview: friedman benda exhibits retrospective of pre-memphis ettore sottsasson view are works from Sottsass’ long-time collaborations with Poltronova

(MB continued): In fact, there was always a commitment to innovation in every sense, from materials to form. The most important thing is that he was a real renaissance man. He was somebody who painted, who used a camera, who drew, who used clay, made furniture, and was an architect. But he didn’t really distinguish between all these different media — it all came from the same place. I’ve never, in my professional life, witnessed anyone who has been able to have such a sheer magnitude design influence. So we could take all that into account, he was a hugely influential person who just kept bringing forward the options that didn’t exist.

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