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The Shiva in Sottsass

Late Italian designer, Ettore Sottsass had a special place for India in his heart. Radha Chadha rediscovers this connect on occasion of Sottsass' centennial exhibit at the Venice Art Biennale

Ettore Sottsass in 1969. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Ettore Sottsass in 1969. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If you have never heard of Ettore Sottsass, that makes two of us. That is until last week, when I saw two exhibitions during the Venice Biennale—one showcasing his glass sculptures (Ettore Sottsass: Il Vetro at Le Stanze del Vetro) and the other, his ceramic artworks (Dialogo at the Olivetti Showroom)—and now I can’t get him out of my mind. He turned out to be a highly prolific multitasking artist—a Renaissance man of sorts—who made his mark in architecture, industrial design, furniture, lighting, photography, painting, besides, of course, glass and ceramics.

But beyond the artistic dexterity, it is the almost magical quality of his works on display that has me. You enter another abstract world—whimsical glass structures, bursting with colour and energy, a certain fearlessness, a devil-may-care attitude, absolutely exquisite in their statuesque elegance. And yet, there is a stillness and balance (even in the ones that seem so precarious), a strange spiritual quality that speaks to me. This mystical element is even more pronounced in his ceramic works, where quirkiness and meditativeness sit happily together.

He was a rare genius, that is obvious in the first 10 seconds, but I wonder what shaped him and his work, this strange mix of colour, eccentricity and spirituality? Obviously, there are multiple influences—he was born in Austria and raised in Italy (Austrian mother, Italian father), travelled widely in Europe, the US, Asia, did path-breaking work as an industrial designer for Olivetti (best known for designing the Valentine, a perky red typewriter in a plastic case), became the leading light behind the design group Memphis—but beyond all this, I believe a huge influence in his life was India.

Yes, India. Not a great deal has been written about it—even at the two exhibitions, the India connection is dealt with scantily—but as I look at his artworks, and the fact that from 1961 onwards he visited India over and over again, an almost annual pilgrimage, I am convinced our country got under his skin, seeped into his design DNA, and poured out in his work. Colour, eccentricity, spirituality—hey, we got plenty of that here.

I have no idea why he kept coming back because his first brush with India almost killed him. He contracted an incurable disease here, and survived only because the Olivetti family generously sent him off to Stanford University’s Medical Center, US, where experimental research on it was being done. This is where things get a little bizarre and very Indian—he returned from Stanford, fully recovered, and made an offering to Shiva. An artistic offering, that is, a series of ceramic constructions named after the god of destruction and rebirth—Ceramiche di Shiva—as an expression of gratitude, a symbolic second shot at life. Three of them are on display at the Biennale—large round plates with a dip in the middle, relatively muted colours (earthy beige, black, gold), incorporating Hindu geometric symbols of “life, rebirth, or women’s fertility". It feels surreal, to stand in Venice and find India staring back at you, and contemplate life, death, and another man’s journey into the depths of our culture.

Lingam vases. Photo: Radha Chadha.
Lingam vases. Photo: Radha Chadha.

Shiva seems to be a god after Sottsass’ heart, for decades later, in 1999, he did a series of Lingam vases. These are vibrant, colourful, tall, elegant, mad-as-a-hatter pieces. For example, one of them is a clear glass outer tubular structure encasing another opaque yellow piece studded with orange blobs and blue danglers, and the whole set-up is crowned with smaller orange finger-like pieces, which remind me of the lady-finger biscuits used in tiramisu.

How did Sottsass make these highly complex and intricate glass sculptures? His secret was collaborating with some of the finest glassmaking factories in Murano, the likes of Vistosi, Cenedese, Venini, as also in France at the glass research centre CIRVA. He provided the drawings—sometimes quick sketches in his notebooks, sometimes elaborate watercolour renderings that qualify as artworks in their own right—and then worked with master glassmakers to interpret them. It is tricky. Glassmaking is an inexact science—you put blobs of molten glass into the furnace, you blow, you twirl, you coax, and what comes out depends entirely on the skill and vision of the glassmaker.

‘Clesitera’. Photo: Radha Chadha
‘Clesitera’. Photo: Radha Chadha

Sottsass was clearly working with absolute masters, and even stretching them beyond their comfort zone of vases, lamps and chandeliers. Take the Asparagi Sacri (Sacred Asparagus), for example, five whimsical red asparaguses standing on a glass base. Or Kachina 4, which is based on native Indian sacred dolls, which looks like a Michelin man with his hands raised. Or Clesitera, which reminds me of a dancing girl with a pot on her head. Or the stunning pieces made for the sheikh of Qatar’s new home Millennium House, in Doha, large asymmetrical sculptures that seem to be in erratic motion—think Calder mobiles—standing tipsily on sturdy marble bases.

Sottsass would have been 100 this year—the two exhibitions celebrate his centennial year—and he worked almost till he died at the age of 90 in 2007. The Indian influence stayed throughout his life, sometimes unstated—as in the colourful homes he designed as part of his architectural practice—and often explicitly, as in the two ceramic series Tantra (1968) and Yantra (1969), which play with Tantric diagrams, or the Gopuram vase in 2001, which channels the typical Indian conical tower.

Why India, I wondered. Perhaps his second wife Barbara Radice sums it well, as quoted in Sottsass by Philippe Thomé: “Ettore found India because he needed India… He looked for it and found it instinctively, as animals sniff the air and go to water."

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

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