In the Mix
Ettore Sottsass and the Social Factory
Al Eiber shares his thoughts on ICA Miami’s new Sottsass monograph
Ettore Sottsass and the Social Factory—the recently published monograph that follows on last year’s exhibition of the same name at Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art—has just come out. What a welcome addition to these long, strange days of summer, as global cultural events are on hiatus. I’ve embraced the opportunity to learn new things about the life and work of one of my heroes.
As a 30-year Sottsass collector, I actually haven’t concerned myself much with thinking about what sparked the creation of his many iconic works, such as his Superboxes or his ceramic Totems. I have always just been drawn to the work itself, energized by how this extraordinarily talented architect-designer continued to push design to new heights throughout his career, which spanned more than 50 years. You don’t have to read a book to see that Sottsass was a true original, an iconoclast, a maestro.
Even so, ICA’s monograph has a lot to offer every kind of Sottsass fan, from the intellectual to the aesthete. It includes 12 scholarly, thought-provoking essays that contextualize Sottsass within the larger landscape of postwar political and economic change, each offering new ways to think about the intersection of Sottsass’s life, work, and milieu. The catalog is also a cool object in bright colors with substantial illustrations documenting the long arc of Sottsass’s career. I especially enjoyed the translations of Sottsass’s writings and photographs of pieces rarely seen even in major museum exhibitions.
Gean Moreno, the catalogue’s main author and editor and the exhibition’s co-curator along with Alex Gartenfeld, explained it well: “One of the main takeaways from this project is that there is a deep desire to understand the ‘prehistory’ of our social present, that people are very eager to draw a clearer understanding of how it is that we got here. And objects that we often think of as exhausted by established readings have a way of quietly beckoning us to think about them anew, from unexpected angles. They encourage us to dismount them from the normative shelves they've been set on so as to help open spaces from where we can more clearly trace the lineaments of our social worlds.”
Notably, this design exhibition, Ettore Sottsass and the Social Factory, was presented in a contemporary art museum in Miami, a place that offers few institutional presentations of design. Sottsass would have loved to know that his work was shown at this museum; he would have been excited to see his work in this city, where architecture is so important and the melting pot of cultures so rich. And Frieda Escobedo's amazing exhibition design for Sottsass’s work was a coup for the museum. ICA Miami deserves kudos for making a commitment to include design in its exhibition program and for building on the discourse that surrounds this seminal figure in design. ◆