(In California, around thirty eight degrees five minutes north latitude. Eucalyptus, madrone, coastal oak, fog, kelp beds in the blue Pacific, the red of radiolarian chert. Resinous smells of chaparral, monkey flower, sage. Some recent offices: 1, 2, 3, 4.)
Here is everything you need to know about Ettore Sottsass in a sentence: Diagnosed with nephritis in 1961, given a month to live, desperately ill at the Stanford Medical Center, he started putting out a magazine about his hospital room.
He was in the treatment program at Stanford because he worked for Olivetti, the office machine company, and they paid to fly him to California. He was one of their stars; he did the amazing design work on the Elea 9003, the first fully transistorized commercial computer, which was eminently sensible in structure (easy to maintain, assess, and program) while still feeling as though you were working inside a new kind of city. (The main console is a piece of kinetic art, letting you look directly at the logic.) He designed their typewriters, calculators, office furniture. (You’ve probably seen the Valentine, maybe his most famous design. He thought it was a mistake.) And he had deep misgivings about his job.
“We now live in an industrial culture,” he said, years later. “We invented a machine a few centuries back and I feel the machine fulfills its own destiny. Just as bronze, say, meant a new way of waging war, of killing. The fact that a lot of products can be produced with machinery, mass-produced, resulting in masses of products, inevitably means that we have to sell these products, we have to give them to someone, and selling them inevitably entails all the possible forms of persuasion so people will buy them.” And he was one of the best at making products desirable, fascinating, new – smoothing the operation of the machine we live inside. This is what he thinks about in his hospital bed, living “day to day,” reassessing what his life has been.
The magazine was called Room East 128 Chronicle. He and Fernanda Pivano (writer and journalist; the great ambassador of Beat lit to Italy; Hemingway was her close friend – here they are; she once said, “all I want is to write three lines that people will remember forever”) assembled it together. They wrote a mordantly funny journalistic chronicle of their routine and his failing health, plus bizarre crossword puzzles, predictions of the weather, collages of papers and magazines, and delightful commentary on American ads and pop culture, which fascinated them.
Against the odds, Sottsass recovered. Pivano introduced him to her Beat world on the west coast (here’s a picture he took of dinner out with Pivano, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and the Orlovsky brothers, who look as if they’re posing for separate album covers). He already loved the ambiguous and inconclusive, the melancholy and sensual – an odd fit for someone who mostly designed office technology – and almost dying, and discovering 1960s counterculture and “counterdesign,” made him daring. He designed “Grey Furniture,” meant to be unphotogenic, off-putting, tomblike, almost impossible to market. He created a series of baffling objects called Superboxes, which could be used to store things but mostly loomed in any given room like a monolith. He created a design of a door to enter into darkness.
I like the way he puts what happened to him: “I understood you could get to the bottom of something without hoping this would become a stone monument, because everything brings fragility with it. An attitude of this kind makes you live with modesty and doubt, but also with great concentration and intensity.” So he created objects so strange – enigmatic presences – that life with them would be a “methodology of uncertainty.”
And, in 1972, he imagined “The Planet as Festival,” a kind of private ad campaign for a future when we got past capitalism and consumer culture, and the bounty of technological development meant a world in leisure: decentralized, the cities abandoned to jungles and deserts, the planet open to exploring. How would we live, what would we be? He daydreamed structures such a society would build. Here are a few of my favorites:
Rafts equipped for listening to chamber music floating down the Tocantins (imagine swimming from Mozart to Telemann!)
and of course my personal favorite: Design of a stadium to watch the stars
(With great concentration and intensity!)
An awesome lost chiming-sunlit–1970s opening guitar riff: Anonymous’s J. Rider off Inside the Shadow. Perfect closing credits music for the sunset shot at the end of an unknown road movie.
NYC event: Morricone Youth provides an original music score for a screening of Saul Bass’ science fiction thriller Phase IV on Friday and Saturday, July 17th and 18th at Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg. Nitehawk is a great place, and Phase IV is a fascinating movie – a crummy intelligent-ants B-movie that also a work of occasional shocking beauty and deep alienness. (It’s secretly the best movie about Land Art ever made.)
One of the most interesting people in New York City, Doug Skinner, has a book out. Doug knows things no one else does; he’s an entire 1890s Montmartre rolled up in a single person. He is the owl that haunts the forests of the Weird Night.
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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