Kalligraphy

Ettore Sottsass

I designed this group of black ceramics after having stayed a while at Xi’an, in China, in the province of Shaanxi.

The earliest signs of so-called human presence at Xi’an and its surroundings date back 6500-6000 years ago (maybe even more). But Xi’an became a great and famous city long afterwards, when, two thousand five hundred years ago or thereabouts, the emperor Qin Shihuang succeeded in unifying the five states that had continued to wage war on each other and decided that the capital of China was to be Xi’ayang, twenty kilometers or so from Xi’an…

The emperor Quin Shihuang is also the one who had his tomb built with an army of terracotta soldiers inside it, so that he would have an army at his service after his death. He is the one who unified Chinese “writing;” the one who burnt the books of the Hundred Schools, who unified the width of roads and thus also more of less the width of carts, etc., etc….In short, he was, as they would say today, a person who got things done; he was a great statesman.

At Xi’an there is a museum called “Forest of Stones,” where there are two thousand three hundred narrow pillars of grey or black stone, from two to four meters high, with ancient calligraphies carved on them. This “Forest of Stones” has become one of the basic records of human history. And it says so in the UNESCO catalogue.

Carved on the black stone pillars are texts from different, very different epochs. They are epitaphs, epitaphs for kings, for generals, for great ladies; and then there are exercises in calligraphy, poems, Confucian and miscellaneous other sayings, besides prayers, government, military and other decrees, and so on…

All this is more or less written in any guide to China, in the chapter on Xi’an.


During those few days I was accompanied by a resplendent little Chinese-Muslim girl, nicknamed “Welcome” by the Hotel’s marketing organization. Welcome knew everything and made me go to other, more or less secret museums, where there were a great many books and a great many reproductions on paper of various other writings and signs and mysterious cabbalas, carved on the stones, on tombs and everywhere.

I didn’t understand anything, yet I felt all the same a strange curiosity, a special wonder, an emotion that left me increasingly short of breath. The emotion grew steadily darker, more ancient , infinitely more ancient and distant, as I went on looking at those unknown signs, at those signs which may also have taken the breath away from all the people of the tribes, the people who lived there with very little existential space at their disposal, watching storms and lightning, diseases, silences and the yellowish immobility of the dead, watching barley leaves rising damply out of the ground and trees blossoming in the spring, berries dropping in the autumns and all these things which for these people—with, as I was saying, very little existential space—meant nothing; all things which, as a matter of fact, still mean nothing at all.

I understood nothing but my breath got steadily shorter.

I became breathless and thunderstruck if I imagined that anxious moment, that moment of millenary anxiety, which more or less relaxed when someone thought of tracing signs on stones or anywhere, perhaps on sand.

Like saying: “Right then, I’ve got no space, I don’t know, I don’t exist, I continue to escape…but now I am depositing my sign, now I can do it, I can divide the space between the senseless rocks and the rocks with my sign on them. My sign is on the rock, now I foresee, now I refer, and imagine a point of reference, now I say, I introduce myself into the mystery, or rather into the order of mystery; I draw a path, or rather, invent the path, I invent a thousand paths…”

“Now I imagine man.”

Very very slowly, it happened.

The first (more or less bloody) revolution had begun.

Those initial signs were perhaps only parallel lines engraved on a piece of bone or maybe they were the lines, the crosses, the circles, the dots and the spirals engraved on thousands of tortoiseshells by unknown Chinese, or Siberian shamans, or perhaps the signs were menhirs or even stones set in a row or in a circle or even organized in the plains to recognize the course of the stars, the moons and suns.

I think those initial signs were never the precedents of the alphabet, of writing, or of any system of communication among men.

They are recognizable by a kind of pallor that surrounds them: the memory of the anxious destiny that provoked them, which is actually the dramatic decision to confront the absolute unknown, the total obscurity, total night, the unlit ocean, the cosmos.

Those initial signs continue to transmit the ancient awareness of infinite importance and for the first time in history, the conceit of infinite power which men have attributed to themselves, to the point of wanting to scrape the surface of God, while also inventing a few Gods for their own use.

The “sign” is not the writing nor is it the representation of surrounding space, I mean it isn’t a postcard to send to friends, it is not yet the time of the so-called pictograms or whatever; it is not yet—as they say—a memorandum, for counting the number of sheep possessed by the royal palace, nor does it count the number of bronze swords to be produced to save people’s lives from the threat of invasion from the north. And it is not yet the construction of metaphors, not yet the construction of interpretations of the wretched destinies of men’s existence on the planet. And as far as the planet is concerned, it has a logic—if any—unattainable to us. The plane, the starry nights, the cosmos, have toward us an impassive, remote, inattentive, icy attitude.

The sign, the first signs, are—if I may thing so—the passage from one state of permanent terrorized flight to the invention of suspended, frail, provisional, anxious inner types of logic. These are the only kind that are actually possible, because they make use of what is available to us: only the culture of perplexity is available, the culture of the vast curiosity that awaits no answer, the culture of ecstacy, the culture of solitude, the culture of fear. Alas!

What else is available to us? The culture of reason? The culture of so-called technology?...

Will the construct of a total artificiality of existence, a total “virtuality” of the days, the hours, the minutes that we spend living, enable us to bear the indifference of the cosmos?

This exhibition is an exhibition of signs and it is called Kalligraphy, only because I couldn’t find a more suitable title.

In reality it is not even and exhibition of signs because I certainly do not claim to “invent” signs.

Even if I continue to pursue the nostalgia of an ancient innocence, I know very well that I am corrupted by a few thousand years of history from which I can never free myself. Perhaps I don’t even want to free myself. And yet, beyond the corruption of a few thousand years of history, beyond the daily conditions under which I travel, I am never without the nostalgia for an ancient innocence, for an ancient imagined abandonment to the non-sense of existence—and consequently also to the final melancholy and totally sweetness of existence.

The signs I have designed are signs more or less suggested by Chinese writings. I have designed signs that for the Chinese have no precise meaning; they may perhaps sometimes have vague coincidences of sense. The signs I have designed concern, precisely, only that intense, fairly definitive emotion which I felt and have tried to explain.

It was an emotion—for that matter—accompanied by the clarity of Welcome, who was content most of all whenever I stopped to buy little packs of sweet biscuits for her.

She put them in her bag each time, saying: “I shall get very fat.”

Written on the occasion of the exhibition Kalligraphy at Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich in October of 1996. Reproduced courtesy of Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Switzerland

Design can be a state of mind, an unusual perception, a ritual whisper.

—Ettore Sottsass

Ettore Sottsass 1917–2007

Ettore Sottsass is one of the most significant designers and architects of the late 20th Century, his bold and colorful, Post Modern aesthetic enlivening objects, furniture and interiors and influencing design around the world. Born in Innsbruck, Austria in 1917, Sottsass and his family moved to Turin, Italy in 1929 so he could study architecture at the Politecnico di Turino. He graduated with a degree in architecture in 1939 but he was called to serve the Italian army during World War II and he spent most of the war in a concentration camp. Upon his return in 1945, he worked for his father, Ettore Sottsass senior, an architect practicing in Turin, before relocating to Milan to curate a craft exhibition at the 1946 Triennale.

In Milan, Sottsass began writing for the art and architectural magazine, Domus. It was also here in Milan that Sottsass founded his own architectural and industrial design practice establishing a name for himself by the end of the 1950s with the design of fashionable office equipment for Olivetti. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Sottsass created radical and experimental designs for forward thinking companies like Poltronova. Sottsass’ exploration of a new visual language included collaborating with artists such as Alessandro Mendini and Andrea Branzi and culminated in the formation of the radical design collective, Memphis whose work was widely accepted and shown all over the world.

Notable architectural projects by Sottsass include the interiors of a chain of stores for Esprit (1985) and the Malpensa airport near Milan (2000). He received many awards and honors throughout his lifetime and his work has been the subject of numerous international publications and exhibitions including a recent retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Designs by Sottsass can be found in the permanent collections of many museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Learn More

Upcoming Lots Ettore Sottsass

Auction Results Ettore Sottsass