Without Light, There is No Color

A Rare Lamp by Ettore Sottsass

In 1926, Luciano Baldessari designed his iconic Luminator light sculpture for the Barcelona International Exhibition of 1929. Conceived as a sculpture, or as the artist described it, a “mechanized mannequin,” the work was more of an expression of an idea than a solution to a lighting problem. This work stands as the agitator for a lineage of Italian lights that broke with the prevalent classicism of the Novecento tradition, ushering in the modern era of design in Italy. The motif of a light column with flaring top was further streamlined in 1936 by Pietro Chiesa whose form expressed the zeitgeist of Italy between the wars. Within five years, all of Italy’s infrastructure would be destroyed, leaving artists and architects to ponder a bleak future but with a clear vision to depart from the tragic past.

Sottsass says, “when you mix colors, you’re not simply mixing colors. You are making a statement by combining the colors just as you would put together a sentence, word by word. And in the end, a meaning emerges.”

“Design arrived in Italy as a theoretical thought, not as practice” according to Ettore Sottsass, Jr., whose father’s architecture adhered to Rationalist principles. A young Ettore broke from his Rational fundamentals to pursue a more plastic art, focusing on the creative practice of the Abstract Expressionists in America. Additionally, an intellectual undercurrent to the early architectural work by Sottsass fostered an exploration of the metaphysical and spiritual.

The present floor lamp, one of only a few known examples, bookends a creative period in the late 1950s for Ettore Sottsass. His illuminated sculptural lights at this time are designed for function but also as a creative endeavor. The progression of form in his lamps appear as totems or signals and, as Sottsass says, “when you mix colors, you’re not simply mixing colors. You are making a statement by combining the colors just as you would put together a sentence, word by word. And in the end, a meaning emerges.”

The vessels are more than simply decorative objects; they are talismans, containers whose purpose, like architecture, is about expressing the void.

A simple geometry of a turned flaring column appears often in Sottsass’ oeuvre, starting with this Luminator lamp, reappearing at different scales and proportions in colorful series of enigmatic ceramics, enamels and glass from the 1950s through the 1970s. The vessels are more than simply decorative objects; they are talismans, containers whose purpose, like architecture, is about expressing the void. The lights, in turn, illuminate the darkness, because “without light, there is no color.” This seemingly familiar yet unknown geometry is referred to as Svatsura, or countersink. The idea is the drilled hole with a second, countersunk space that is the domain of the carpenter. Here, that void is the form, and its opposite is the void that surrounds the vessel in infinite space. This intellectual, spacial flip finds a final expression in the Callimaco lamp of 1982.

Anonymous, abstract, mathematical space can be turned into something human and real if one can squeeze out of it the colors it contains.

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.

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