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Ettore Sottsass glassware creations find a perfect showcase in Venice

by Luca Massimo Barbero

“All life long, I’ve always tried to design objects that stood still and in some way forced one to acknowledge their presence, so much so, I got this idea of adding a pedestal to just about anything.”

Ettore Sottsass, architect and painter, studied the importance of how one relates to objects right at the start of his career: an indelible imprint within his poetics that comes to encompass the flow of glass; faintly at first, gradually growing richer and stronger.

The Venetian exhibition – “Ettore Sottsass: Glass” – is exclusively devoted to this aspect of his vast production, thus taking a fresh look at the famous designer.

His first work with glass happened almost fortuitously: we might say Sottsass chances upon the Zeitgeist. The year is 1947, and the designer creates his first glass object, a spherical, hand-blown filigreed vase, probably presented at the eighth Milanese Triennale and published in Domus magazine in 1953.

This first item is followed, almost as fun distractions, by several others in engraved glass Sottsass designed for S.A.L.I.R. in 1948, which were presented at the Biennale that same year, as if to mark the artist's farewell to glass.

The hiatus lasted nearly two decades: it’s not until 1974 that Sottsass resumes working with the material, designing some thirty vases for Luciano Vistosi. Only ten of these are produced as the others, he admits, “could not be made.” That’s the start of Sottsass’ challenge to the “nature of glass” and its possibilities, exploring the latter more and more over time as he comes to know the reality of Murano, a glass-blowing capital for centuries, where he’d only been twice.

The design stage is a founding moment in creation, for Sottsass, to the point he declares that “eventually, what’s left is that the designs belong to me and the objects were made by them,” i.e. by the master glassblowers he holds in the highest esteem.

This first cycle for Vistosi already shows the pedestal’s central role, both as physical component and for its conceptual significance – ensuring stability in the face of so clear an immanence that the object becomes an ironic anti-monument.

In 1976, Vittorio Gregotti invited Sottsass to present his work in a solo exhibition alongside the Venice Biennale, an opportunity to take stock of the architect’s now-mature approach to creativity and design.

By founding the Memphis Group in 1981, Sottsass writes an important new chapter in international design and marks daily life with a ‘love-it-or-loathe-it’ style that makes bold to tilt planes and pair very different materials and hues.

In this spirit, the Memphis Group designers collaborate with Toso Vetri d’Arte in Murano, creating a collection of never-before-seen vases; the year is 1982 and the first series features simple shapes, daringly outlined and enhanced by color, almost aggressed by hooks, segments, coils, dynamic and unlikely handles. Sottsass’ new interest in the material appears to lie in color’s optically infinite possibilities, from interpenetration to mutation.

In 1986, he returns to Murano and disrupts the status quo, forcing the master craftsmen to use chemical glue despite the ancient technique of heat welding.

Glassware like Clesitera, Maya or Efira are amazing solutions, complex articulations of pedestal, supporting unit and decoration.

In the 1990s, Sottsass experiments with combinations of materials like wood, metal and marble, as in the series titled Rovine – created in collaboration with Compagnia Vetraria Muranese in 1992 – and particularly in his Big and Small Works, objects he designed for the Mourmans Gallery in 1994, where glass elements – hand-blown by Venini masters – are inserted in massive marble pedestals.

(“Ettore Sottsass: Glass,” Venice, San Giorgio Maggiore Island until July 30th)