In the early 1960s — almost two decades before he became the ringleader of the boisterous Memphis collective, a group of some 20 renegade postmodernists — the polymathic Austrian-born designer and architect Ettore Sottsass was touring India when he contracted life-threatening nephritis. Roberto Olivetti, of the Olivetti typewriter company, for whom Sottsass would later dream up a now-iconic cherry-red portable model, paid for his treatment at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, and during his tedious recovery, Sottsass amused himself by sketching pills stacked vertiginously high, like children’s blocks. When he was released, he wandered north to San Francisco, where he fell in with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, a meeting that began his long association with the leading figures of the American counterculture.
So it seems only natural that in 1965, Sottsass began creating a series of 21 large and supremely weird totem-like sculptures that hint at psychedelic pharmacopia. Fashioned in the Bitossi ceramic workshop in Florence and exhibited at Gian Enzo Sperone’s influential Milan gallery, they went completely unsold, a fact that seems to delight the Paris-based designer and architect Charles Zana, a burly contrarian who has, over the past 15 years, become one of Sottsass’ most enthusiastic collectors. ‘‘Most things that are really great at first make people a little annoyed,’’ he says.
The Memphis aesthetic, known for its brash primary colors and Tinker Toy silhouettes (the name came from the collective’s members playing Bob Dylan’s ‘‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’’ over and over at their first meeting, in December 1980), has lately experienced a revival after long being dismissed as postmodern kitsch, with young designers such as Ladies & Gentlemen Studio and Ben Medansky paying homage. But Zana is mildly dismissive of the collective. To him, the flood of press Memphis garnered throughout the ’80s, as people like Karl Lagerfeld and David Bowie became fervent fans, obscured what was truly remarkable about the movement: Sottsass’ range and complexity. Zana argues that the designer, who was born in 1917 and whose career spanned more than 60 years (he died in 2007), was a pivotal 20th-century figure whose architectural genius has never been fully appreciated, though major institutions have finally started to come around — the Met Breuer’s nearly-170-piece exhibit ‘‘Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical,’’ is on view until Oct. 8. ‘‘He changed everything,’’ Zana says. ‘‘He was really the first person to entirely inhabit that most interesting place between art and architecture.’’
Three of Sottsass’ glazed ceramic totems, which are nearly human-sized, dominate Zana’s 18th-century apartment on Rue de Grenelle in Paris. Imposing yet gleeful, they stand sentry on the parquet de Versailles, adjacent to chairs and tables of Zana’s own design, bulwarks of early Pop radicalism amid the haute-bourgeois sage-painted boiserie walls. In the 1980s, Sottsass’ own design firm, Sottsass Associati, began releasing a Bitossi-produced line of totems, but the original 21 still stand as symbols of the designer’s rebellion against the sober gestures of Modernism, as well as his idiosyncratic take on such progenitors as ancient Vedic diagrams and the Vienna Secessionist Josef Hoffmann.
Including the totems, Zana’s collection consists of some 30 Sottsass works, ranging from late ’90s pieces — including a spittoon-shaped brass vase, unexpectedly sliced flat on one side — to rare 1960s and ’70s prototype ceramics. He also owns lighting and constructions from Sottsass’ pre-Memphis period, when he was involved with Studio Alchimia, a group that evolved out of the radical Italian ‘‘anti-architecture’’ collectives Archizoom and Superstudio. During the Venice Biennale this past spring, Zana curated an exhibition of Sottsass ceramics at the Olivetti boutique on the Piazza San Marco, designed in 1957 by Carlo Scarpa — a location that highlighted the Olivetti family’s decades-long association with both the famed Venetian architect and with Sottsass.
Zana also collects the work of Andrea Branzi, an Archizoom founder who is still working at 78. In the living room of Zana’s 2,000-square-foot apartment, a tranquil T-shaped expanse with a vast deck at the back, a huge Branzi floor lamp with an oversize crinkled paper shade as poufy as a hoop skirt casts a warm glow. ‘‘I am not just interested in the objects,’’ he says. ‘‘I am interested in the ideas, which were a lot more classical than people give them credit for.’’ Of all the designers associated with the late-midcentury Italian avant-garde — even Michael Graves cast his lot with Memphis for a time — Branzi and Sottsass were among the few truly great thinkers, Zana contends.
A Tunisian who came to Paris with his parents in 1962 as a 2-year-old, Zana, who is built like a wrestler and walks like a cowboy, likes to think of himself as a ‘‘bohemian sort of collector.’’ His residential clients often own a great deal of art themselves, much of it large and challenging, and turn to him for his understanding of how to display their collections as they evolve. Zana himself refuses to treat his own things as particularly precious or concern himself with hermetically sealed perfection. He developed that attitude in his university days, when he began picking up pieces he refers to as ‘‘vintage’’ (as opposed to ‘‘art’’): glass by Venini, furniture by Jean Prouvé. This was long before Prouvé was rediscovered, but Zana was already interested in how work by the French designer, who made affordable furniture for places like schools, could be used in a residential setting. ‘‘I always thought it was absurd to treat things as though they were suddenly so delicate and valuable when that wasn’t how they started,’’ he says
Now, a 1957 Carlo Mollino armchair and matching footstool, covered in the original rose velvet, slightly frayed, can be pulled close to a radiator when a chill sets in, or moved to catch the breeze from double doors flung open to the deck during a warm day in June. While he doesn’t encourage guests to actually sit on the small blue-speckled Sottsass chair — ‘‘It is a little more of an idea than a chair,’’ he concedes, ‘‘though you could sit on it, theoretically’’ — he doesn’t shy away from flipping it upside down with one hand, as easily as throwing an opponent over his shoulder, to display its construction. He and his wife, a stylist, have two children, now 23 and 18, who were raised amid imminently shatterable works of art in the Haussmannian townhouse their parents owned before moving to Rue de Grenelle two years ago. Sometimes things broke. No one yelled.