Austrian-born Italian designer Ettore Sottsass Jr was both humorous and serious, and hated it when people called him a Futurist, says Barbara Radice, the author and journalist who became his wife. ‘Ettore used to say that he was not interested in the future, only in the present.’ she says.
Originally trained as an architect like his father before him, Sottsass Jr escaped from a Yugoslavian concentration camp in his twenties after being told every day was the last day of his life.
A natural survivor, he could put his hand to anything and worked by the philosophy that daily life and objects could be made more appealing for people. A keen photographer, philosopher, designer, painter, ceramicist and friend of the Beat poets, his big break came when he was hired to work at Olivetti alongside Adriano Olivetti’s son, Roberto, and the engineer Mario Tchou after a stint with George Nelson in New York in the fifties.
Sottsass soon turned his focus to the office interior which, at that time in Italy, was overrun with heavy and expensive furniture. He wanted to make the office more sensual and exciting, and also make it function more efficiently.
Like the much-coveted lipstick red typewriter that he launched with Olivetti on Valentine’s Day in 1970, his Synthesis 45 series of 1971-3 appealed to the new, cool office crowd. Dubbed 45 as a reference to the 45-centimetre base measurements used.
The series was fun, cheap and mass-produced, and covered everything from an office that folded out of a cupboard to modular accessories designed to hold pens, papers, paperclips, phones, typewriters and calculating equipment.
Furniture could be chopped and changed and adapted for different workers’ needs, side tables and drawers could be swapped from left to right, and paper trays raised to the right height for each worker and moved around on swivel joints.
Sottsass had a vision of computers incorporated into both the home and the office and Synthesis desks were already designed to accommodate them when his prophecy came true.
Office managers were keen to have the Z9/r chair with its space-age base that swivelled on a moving central pole. Designed to move from telephone to computer to filing cabinet in a flash, the chair could spin across a room on its wheels and took up very little space.
Its injection-moulded ABS frame was long lasting, the textile-covered foam seat comfortable, and a mixed palette of colours helped office managers match furniture with the mood or branding of the office.
Terence Conran loved the range so much that, once established as sole agent in the UK, he gave the Z9/r chair its own advertisement.
Once customers had fallen for the chair, they often bought other parts of the Synthesis series to match.
One of the first designers to tap into the way people attach emotion to even the most practical objects, Sottsass Jr’s philosophy was one that designer Jonathan Ive would later use to Apple’s advantage.
But rather than pursuing the big money in office design, Sottsass Jr founded the radical Memphis group, at an age when most designers would choose retirement over a new experimental direction.