WITH A HOLISTIC EYE


SOTTSASS 700 DRAWINGS
published by Skira Books


I find it very easy these days to forget that once upon a time I actually went to Art School and studied Design. It's not something that seems to have had any great lasting impact on my life's trajectory since that graduation ceremony in Glasgow's City Chambers all those years ago, and that's just fine. Occasionally however something pops up and memories come flickering through the murk. A recent browse through this collection of 700 drawings by Austrian born architect / designer Ettore Sottsass had just such an effect.

Sottsass of course had been around for ages by the time the '80s arrived (he famously worked for Olivetti, creating a design for the first Italian electronic calculator in 1959) but it was his work as part of the colourful and then avant-garde Memphis group that he founded in 1981 that really caught our attention as young designers up in our Glasgow Art School ivory towers. We lapped it up, and looking though this book is a bit like rediscovering our own lost sketchbooks of the time. It really is quite scary. Then again, maybe all designers tend to draw in the same kind of way, tend to keep the same kinds of journals.

So Memphis design was all electric primary colour and crazy pattern over simple forms that came together at odd angles and produced what has, over time, come to represent to some extent the epitome of '80s Post-Modernist style. Some will tell you it hasn't aged well, but they would be wrong, and if it's proof you need, then it's here in this delicious collection of drawings.

Sottsass saw design with a holistic eye; architecture was treated as a stage onto which one would drop, as he said 'all the furniture, curtains, lamps and objects in general you know, vases for flowers, plates for eating, baskets for bread (if there is any) or fruit (if there is any) and so on... This idea of design being theatrical is something that ties a lot of these drawings to David Hockney, of whom they are most reminiscent, and that's fitting because really the Memphis approach was pure Pop Art.

And of course Memphis was a great name for a post-modern Popism fuelled furniture / design range. After all, didn't Memphis give us some of the finest, dirtiest Blues? And didn't Sun records and Elvis make Pop history there? Then there was James Kirk who, having jumped the OJ's ship, made one of the most beautiful Pop singles ever, recording as Memphis. 'You Supply The Roses' (re-cycled as 'Krach Auf Wiedersehen' for his brilliant You Can Make It If You Boogie come-back set of 2003) came out on the Swamplands label and is one of the rarest treasures you will ever hear. And going back even further of course there's the Memphis Jug Band and the glorious Memphis Minnie, as documented by the legendary Harry Smith in his Anthology Of American Folk Music. And who can forget that Memphis Minnie crops up in the great Ghost World movie as the Crumb-based character Seymour waxes lyrical about her voice? It all fits.

Oh and naturally there was the link back to the ancient Egyptians, and that shouldn't be overlooked either, because really if Sottsass and the Memphis gang represented anything it was a brilliant melding of the ancient and the modern.

This hefty book (thankfully printed in a thick A5 format as befits any sketchbook/ ournal) then is both a timely reminder of the contribution from one of the late 20th Century's most influential designers and a disarming glimpse into the creative process of any designer/artist. Crammed with ideas (from barely formed to more fully realised), this book should be compulsory viewing for any student of any visual Art; proof that, if as the saying goes 'a writer writes', then an artist draws. Always. And if sometimes I regret I forget that, I'm thankful that books like this can bring that fact back into my mind, can remind me that somewhere inside me there are still some quietly haunting ghosts of Art School days.
 
        Alistair Fitchett 2005