Ettore Sottsass at the Met Breuer: Design Radical

Text and Images by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

If you are seeking a diversion from the horror of U.S. politics (as I was and am), I recommend a small exuberant exhibition at the Met Breuer focused around the design ideas and work of the Italian architect/designer, Ettore Sottsass (1917 – 2007). It will lift your spirits in a way that only imaginative and serious art can.

This is one of those shows that intersperses the work of Sottsass and the post-modern design group, Memphis, of which he was the chief honcho, with the artists and aesthetic environment that influenced Sottsass. I would have preferred more pieces by Sottsass, but it’s always interesting to understand the context of his work.

Sottsass worked on low-cost, post-war housing with his father, also an architect, and eventually embraced a “less is more” aesthetic for living. In theory, he envisioned modest-sized modular structures to hold a household’s minimum possessions. He scorned the materialism of post-war America but embraced much of the rebellious culture of post-war American art.

However, as is immediately evident, there was a paradox at the heart of Sottsass’ radical designs. Though they were meant to be nontraditional pieces for middle class consumers, they wound up being so expensive that only the very rich could afford them, thus undercutting much of the Memphis philosophy.

Nevertheless, emblematic as they are of an era that tried to marry the theory and practice of radical and affordable design, the exhibition turns out to be a “fun” and educational exhibition of gorgeous works in a variety of mediums.

If, like me, you love color, then you will particularly respond to Sottsass’s notion that “colors are like words,” and enjoy the way he implemented his vision and philosophy. I was particularly drawn to his vivid textile designs as well as to his playfulness with plastic and glass.

Once you’ve toured the show, you might want to relax with a friend at Flora, the Met Breuer’s spiffy and, during the week, fairly quiet coffee bar.

Ettore Sottsass at the Met Breuer: Design Radical
Through October 8, 2017

About Eleanor Foa Dienstag (24 Articles)
Eleanor Foa Dienstag is a veteran author, journalist, photo-journalist and award-winning corporate writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, the New Republic, the New York Observer, Ms., Travel & Leisure, and many other websites and publications. Eleanor is the author of three books. Her most recent, available on Amazon and Centro Primo Levi is MIXED MESSAGES: Reflections on an Italian Jewish Family and Exile. It is a multi-layered memoir about Eleanor’s personal journey, her father’s exile from Fascist Italy and the Foa Family journey, whose Italian-Jewish roots go back to the 1500s in northern Italy where her ancestors were famous printers. WHITHER THOU GOEST: The Story of an Uprooted Wife, also a memoir, was acclaimed by Business Week for its insights into corporate life. Her third book, In Good Company: 125 Years At The Heinz Table, offered a unique view of a quintessential American company. Eleanor served as staff speechwriter to the Chairman and CEO of American Express. In 1983, she founded Eleanor Foa Associates ( It provides a wide variety of corporate writing and marketing services. Eleanor is past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), received speechwriting awards from IABC, and was awarded literary residencies at Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). She resides in Manhattan.