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Carlton - 1981

designed by Ettore Sottsass

Exhibition Milan - Hong Kong design, new forms and functions in parallel with Italian iconic works

Ettore Sottsass, architect and industrial designer, was born in the city of Innsbruck in 1917 and has been one of the most influential and important figures of the 20th century design scene.

Exposed to the world of architecture since a young age, as his father himself was an architect, he grew up in Turin where he graduated from the Polytechnic University in 1939 before serving in the military during World War II and spending years in a labor camp in Yugoslavia. After returning home, he worked in his father’s studio renovating buildings that were destroyed during the war, before founding his own practice in Milan to focus on working with different means such as ceramic, painting and interior design.

In Milan, he immersed himself in the vibrant cultural landscape of the city, attending the literary salon that would allow him to meet with the illustrious architects and designers of him time, and married writer and translator Fernanda Pivano. She introduced him to the literary society of the city and to many writers and artists that would later influence his work beyond his initial approch to industrial design.

During his early years, he was first a member of the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus and later moved briefly to New York City to work with industrial design and Modernist George Nelson. He was then commissioned by entrepreneur Irving Richards a exhibition of ceramic works, a medium he had been pursuing since the beginning of his career and that was quickly launching him into international recognition for his originality and creativity.

His breakthrough came when Adriano Olivetti hired him as a design consultant in 1958 for Olivetti, the most important typewriter and computer manufacturer in Italy, renowned for its incredibly advanced design. For them, he developed the first Italian mainframe computer that won him the prestigious Compasso d’Oro prize in 1959, and a number of different typewriters, office equipment and furniture. His style began developing more clearly during his time at Olivetti: bringing bold colors, form and styling to office equipment, he pushed the boundaries between industrial design and pop culture. Moving from his first functional and sober typewriters to the Valentine in 1969, an accessory that became a fashion statement in the Italian society, he gained fame and recognition as an innovative and disruptive product designernot afraid to break the schemes and go beyond functionality and form.


Room divider in wood and plastic laminate

W 200 cm x D 50 cm x H 220 cm

In 1981, the Memphis Group debuted their first collection. It was like a bomb had gone off in the design world. They were brightly coloured, patterned, decorated, kitsch and completely rebelled against the definition of the convention of ‘good design’ which had been revered for decades. The concept of ‘form follows function’ had been put on a pedestal as a principle of good design since the days of the Bauhaus where resolution, integration and coherence were valued alongside logic and sobriety. Memphis was the complete opposite of this. Objects were liberated from function and instead became a visual object rather than just a tool or piece of furniture. 

Carlton is a Memphis icon. It makes an immediate impression from its unusual shape and glossy, saccharine coloured plastic laminate finish. The piece with its expressive combinations of lines and geometric shapes, solids and voids, reads at first glance more as a  sculpture or three-dimensional abstract painting. Its multi-function as a room divider, bookcase and chest of drawers is not immediately apparent. While the slanted shelves seem counterintuitive it actually takes into account books that often fall over in upright shelving.

‘Even now the jolt, the impact created by walking into a room containing a cabinet by Memphis – the Carlton, for instance – is visceral. It’s true you can’t put another piece of furniture within the same space. There is just no aesthetic room. All networks of proposition are trammelled by this one item.’ David Bowie, who was a major collector of Memphis, recounting the visual impact of Memphis.