To frame who Ettore Sottsass was, the immense - overflowing yet meticulous - collection of texts, drawings, thoughts and notes that he left us. His all-round creative work has been plumbed countless times, what matters to us is to explain why Di chi sono le case vuote? (Whose are the empty houses?) by Ettore Sottsass, the latest book published by Adelphi, is the perfect gift to give - at Christmas, for no reason , always - even to those who don't know anything about design.
Let's start from the beginning: Sottsass is a writer - a real writer - and this is a magic book: talk about design even when it doesn't seem to. And it feels that no, the design is not just another chair that was not needed.
Sottsass is a writer, a true writer
Architect, designer, photographer, intellectual but above all m genius, creative and disruptive, curious and irreverent, ironic and bold, Sottsass is (and it is by no means a foregone conclusion) a writer, a true writer: “a n author who recognizes himself in each line, and who is different from any other”, like writes in the afterword Matteo Codignola curator of the trilogy, composed by Per qualcuno può essere lo spazio (2017) and Molto difficile da dire (2019), which ends with this valuable collection.
With a unmistakable voice that bases a writing cadenced, light-hearted yet calibrated, designed as an architecture, Whose are the empty houses? composes in a sort of symphony various types of themes and texts written by the prolific and unlabable Sottsass over the years ' 80, when he co-founded the Memphis collective, and the early 2000s.
With a expressive freedom mixed with materials, shapes and colors, talks about architecture and design, history and family, ancient peoples and distant geographies, light and darkness, Filicudi and Austria, nature and mountains, of bathrooms and kitchens, walls and rituals. Of life. This is a book imbued with life.
A collection stitched in essay/novel
Composed of texts, thoughts, anecdotes, reflective excerpts and intuitive fragments to build a sort of album (visual, tactile, olfactory, absolutely analog) with a compelling narrative charge, Di chi sono le case vuote? escapes any categorization.
Let's start with some premises. Usually the essay explains through a rational logical process: it starts from observations, exposes one or more theses and arrives at certain conclusions. The literature tells various and possible facts, but it calls into question the reader, urges him to ' action. Literature explores, examines but what, how, why the reader interprets it.
In the literature (in some literature) there are pieces of oneself , which are known or at least heard echoing somewhere but for the which words have never been found. Not those , not arranged in that way: not pruned and sewn with that (obsessive) care. Even when situations, times and circumstances are very far from the personal reality of the reader - especially, when they are very far from the reality of the reader - finding those pieces, those mirrors, those reflections, is enlightening . And enveloping: you feel more understood, less alone.
The essayist does research, fiction is research. In a novel, in the events narrated, everyone reads to us what he wants/feels. It is then, only then, that a 'thesis' of which an essay wants to 'convince us' feels its own. Because you hear it, precisely.
Then there are the good ones (very few) who manage to do both. And that's what Ettore Sottsass does.
Because it is a magical book that speaks to everyone
Starting from the curiosity of his - formidable and boundless, sly and visceral - author, the book generates amazement, wonder. Like? To explain it, we report some of the ideas it offers and which we think may involve even those who are not design experts: it shows us, makes us feel, that there is design even where we don't see it. We report them with his unraveled voice, the one loved in the autobiography Scritto di notte, edited by Adelphi, the one with a rhythm that cradles and at the same time mockers, which seems to proceed linearly and then discard all last and surprise, always.
As it describes light: of the sun, moon and darkness
The light, which bathes, blinds and burns and the shelters to be built in darkness , dark and heavy, to tame it. References to ancient civilizations and distant peoples and to lunar architectures, excavated or shaped, which become physical but also metaphysical balm. Starting from Filicudi, there is an ecstatic, esoteric, indecipherable journey in the text On the Light: a perturbing journey that we advise you to undertake in all his poetics that from planning become sacred.
“In reality the light does not illuminate, the light tells. The light gives meanings, the light draws metaphors, the light gives shape to the scene for the general comedy”. And light becomes a design element, not only in architecture but in everyday life, that of everyone: “the vocabulary is filled with words, the syntax is filled with phrases, metaphors multiply and the shadow and light become a matter of common use (…) they become a spoken language, invented and reinvented”.
For the “kitchen-room” where an alchemical and sacral ritual is staged
The protagonist of the captivating and at the same time sad story is the huge kitchen of the inn of Uncle Camillo di Sottsass “in a town sunk in the shadows of the Alpine mountains”. The image, the powerful vision, is formed immediately and is imprinted in the mind of the reader: on the bottom a “stove very large as a gigantic black altar, covered all day with immense aluminum pots that continually sent out new whites of odorous vapors”, in the center an imposing wooden table around the which gathered guests, friends and relatives. “Everything happened in that immense kitchen, in that project place, in that meeting place , in that caravanserai, in that theater (….)”.
For Sottsass, the kitchen is “the place where the infinite Encyclopedia of substances, of planetary states, gathers, gathers, and then gets together, organizes, catalogs, is proportioned, takes shape, takes on some recognizable meaning, transforms into something usable to design then that ritual, which is the daily ritual of eating”. The kitchen, he explains, “is about the continuous rebirth of existence and at the same time the continuous confirmation of its precariousness, provisional nature”.
For the (unexpected) colors that show us where the design is in real life
If the chromatic range that is immediately associated with Sottsass, especially linked to the projects for Memphis, is vibrant and pop, in Colors unexpectedly we read “when I was little the colors were the same things, they weren't ‘colors’ but they were wasps, raspberries, mushrooms, flowers and that's it”, “there was no color that was' detached 'from some object or animal or vegetable, it did not exist in my catalog of perceptions, discoveries, notions”, “it did not exist then and as far as I'm concerned the color (abstract, classified,' scientific ') does not even exist now”.
So colors, like words, light, food... become elements of a sort of abacus: ‘bricks’ to build composite works, known to compose a score of letters and images, but also smells and flavors, those of the woods and mountains where Sottsass grew up. And here is where design is, where it is also in everyone's real life: in the method.
For stories ranging from encyclopedias to ’eros
The vast and multifaceted activity of Sottsass has ranged from architecture, design, photography, painting and drawing to furniture, objects, sculptures, glass and ceramics to writings and even editorial activity. Its creative amalgam, its magic formula, in Matter - Form - Color explains it thus “using natural or artificial materials, shaping materials, combining different materials , using the colors of the subjects, coloring the subjects, combining colors is like writing stories, it is like drawing on the words of an immense, endless encyclopedia to write stories”.
In Who's Afraid of the Market? begins with “The word design means almost nothing, it's like saying literature: what is it?” To hypothesize “one can think that the project has the project itself as its goal" (an act without a productive purpose) and here the bold comparison is with the embrace (an act without a regenerative purpose) and finally becoming poetic “it is extremely fascinating to let oneself go into the mysterious torrent of intercourse” and “it is also extremely fascinating to walk in the dark space of the project, looking for flashes of epiphanies in that darkness, looking out over unexpected landscapes, retracing forgotten ancient events, directing the torch to other mysteries, opening doors and windows to new lights”.
Because there is a thought - written by hand - special
Di chi sono le case vuote? deserves to be read just for the long thought dedicated to Shiro Kuramata, who died in 1991, which returns the greatness of the enlightened designer but above all of the person.
“I am not a professional critic, I cannot give exact explanations, I was friends with Shiro Kuramata and he did not speak English and I did not speak Japanese, we were like two lovers, one Brazilian and the other, or the other, from New Guinea, we communicated with our eyes, with smiles or with our hands, but above all we communicated with the silences , and magical understandings that pass through the air. We understood each other, perhaps, because we had always understood each other, even before communicating”. “This system of communicating by allusions, of communicating almost more for something that there is not, rather than something that is (…)”.
Finish reading these pages, those of a handwritten notebook and so reported in the book, complete with corrections and deletions, and you feel like embracing them, both , these two poets lent to design. And to embrace design, which, no, is not just yet another chair that was not felt the need.
Cover photo and in the article: view of the exhibition Ettore Sottsass, L’objet magique - Center Pompidou, Paris. 13 October - 3 January 2022 © Center Pompidou, Audrey Laurans. Furniture and exhibits are positioned in the center of an installation made with the decorative panels Bacterio, Serpente, Rete and Spugnato designed by Sottsass for Abet Laminati. The meeting between the eclectic designer and the far-sighted laminate company, back in 1964, gave birth to one of the longest-running and culturally lively collaborations in the history of design.