Ettore Sottsass & Shiro Kuramata

Ettore Sottsass, Shiro Kuramata

Curator: Seiki Mori

Text: Charmaine Tam

17 Jul – 14 Aug 2021

Novalis Art Design, 197 Hollywood Road, Hong Kong

Curator’s Foreword:

“Retrospective of Future Creation by Friendship of Two Men.”
We are pleased to introduce this joint exhibition to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the friendship between an Italian designer and a Japanese designer through “Ettore Sottsass & Shiro Kuramata”. Ettore Sottsass and Shiro Kuramata came together to create the next episode of the world in the late 20th century.

Through our exhibition, we would like to admire the freedom and the playfulness of two men. The duet of creation between the two proved the realization of individuality and revolutionized modern design both in that period of time and beyond.

During this recent pandemic situation, we shall rethink the value of our life and society. No matter how our world becomes complex and uncertain, we should believe in our individuality and our freedom of creative mind. We hope to bring this enlightenment to the audience through our exhibition.

Text by Charmaine Tam:

2021 marks both the 30th anniversary of Shiro Kuramata’s death and the 40th anniversary of the birth of the Memphis Group. What better time is there to revisit the two core figures in the modern history of design, Shiro Kuramata (1934 – 1991) and Ettore Sottsass (1917 – 2007) at their intersection in the Memphis Group?

The Memphis Group was an Italian design movement founded by Ettore Sottsass in 1981. Active between 1981 and 1988, the Memphis Group defined ‘80s aesthetic and greatly revolutionised the design world. Memphis sought to rebel against the ‘uniform panorama of good taste’ of the time, where the principle ‘form follows function’ reigned supreme. With Memphis, design has been liberated from rationality, and enters the realm of poetry. Form no longer had to follow function. Design could be loud, colourful, whimsical, with clashing patterns. Objects were liberated from function and instead became a visual object rather than just a tool or piece of furniture.

The pieces shown by the Memphis Group and their international collaborators were shocking: mixing elegance and kitsch, playing with absurd and irrational shapes, using plastic laminates with patterns that simulate precious materials, but most of all it introduced the pleasure of play into the rational language of industrial production. Love it or hate it, it rapidly amassed public and press attention worldwide, and came to define the aesthetics of the ‘80s. More importantly, it expanded the boundaries of design, emphasizing the expressive possibilities of design as a vehicle of communication, rather than just one of utilitarian function.

Shiro Kuramata was one of the international collaborators invited to the Memphis Group, marking a remarkable cultural exchange between Japan and Italy. When Kuramata received a letter from Sottsass asking him to join Memphis, he was so ecstatic that he exclaimed “I got a love letter from Sottsass!” Sottsass also said in an interview, “I thought Kuramata was someone so special. It was like lovers from Brazil and New Guinea. Have you ever fallen in love? It’s similar to that feeling.” The two shared the same love for design, kindred souls in their belief that there is more to design than mere functional objects.

To Ettore Sottsass, “if there is a reason for the existence of design, it is that it manages to give – or give anew – instruments and things this sacred charge for which […] men enter the sphere of ritual, meaning life.” Design should not merely be functional objects, but remind people of the joy of living through engaging in sensuality. This joy of living is found throughout his work in Memphis with their playful colours and shapes. ‘Carlton’ (1981) in particular is a Memphis icon. It makes an immediate impression from its unusual shape and glossy, saccharine coloured plastic laminate finish. The piece with its expressive combinations of lines and geometric shapes, solids, and voids, reads at first glance more as a totemic sculpture. Its multi-function as a room divider, bookcase and chest of drawers is not immediately apparent. While the slanted shelves seem counterintuitive it actually takes into account books that often fall over in upright shelving.

Shiro Kuramata stated that the “function of design should not be just about whether it is practical or not. Enchantment should also be considered as function.” This enchantment can be found in Kuramata’s experimental materials, in the light captured within ‘star piece’ terrazzo used in ‘Nara’ (1983), where Kuramata substituted traditional marble chips used in terrazzo with coloured glass. It is found, in the suspended moment of breaking glass captured in ‘Sally’ (1987), which was achieved by hammering reinforced glass sandwiched between two sheets of glass. The inspiration for this originated from Kuramata’s poetic question “since glass is at its most beautiful the moment it is breaking, is it possible to capture that moment forever?” This immortalization of a moment represents the sensibility that forms the core of Kuramata.

Together, Kuramata’s and Sottsass’ work demonstrate the transcendental possibilities of design to evolve beyond functional objects into visual poetry.