Ettore Sottsass may have described his colorful, oversize ceramic totems from the 1960s as “crazy things,” but they make perfect sense today in the subdued Paris apartment of architect and interior designer Charles Zana. “It’s like that moment Salieri realized that Mozart was composing a masterpiece in his head—and that he just makes music that’s good,” Zana says. “Sottsass for me was like that. The people around him made good things, but he made masterpieces that will last a hundred years.”
The Italian architect and designer, who died in 2007, is now more popular than ever, especially among young designers. He’s best known as the leader of the postmodern Memphis Group. Chances are, if you’ve ever marveled at a chunky, rainbow-hued object from that lively era of ’80s design, it was one of his.
But the master was influential throughout his entire career, known for reinventing what design itself can (and should) be: eclectic, provocative, exuberant, and profound. To many, Sottsass was unclassifiable, often changing his technique and working in everything from furniture and buildings to electronics, jewelry, textiles, and even magazine publishing. Marc Benda of New York’s Friedman Benda gallery, a major Sottsass dealer, calls him an “omnivorous” creator, much like Picasso as an artist. “He succeeded in being meaningful in everything he touched, from writing to painting to photography to architecture,” Benda says. “He’s one of those pivotal figures. In his discipline there are not many like him.”
This year Sottsass is being celebrated with a number of exhibitions, including one at the Met Breuer in New York (July 20–October 8), another at La Triennale di Milano (September 14–February 25, 2018), and one featuring glass at Le Stanze del Vetro in Venice (April 10–July 30). During the Venice Biennale, Zana is producing an exhibition of Sottsass’s ceramics at the Olivetti showroom, an architectural gem on Piazza San Marco. Zana’s show, which runs from May 10 to mid-August, consists of his holdings along with those of three other private collectors, all Italian. Representing Sottsass’s many different styles from 1955 to ’69, it totals around 60 pieces in all.
Zana has his own successful career, spanning two decades and 200 projects from London to Tel Aviv. He describes his style as “contemporary classicism,” and his portfolio includes luxury residences as well as public spaces such as Caffè Artcurial in Paris and a Guy Martin restaurant opening this year at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Seated in his 18th-century apartment in the Seventh Arrondissement, surrounded by Andrea Branzi lamps, Adel Abdessemed sketches, and a Walking Flower sculpture by Fernand Léger, Zana recalls discovering Sottsass in the 1980s as a Beaux Arts student in Paris. Later he became familiar with his work from the ’60s and ’70s, his favorite Sottsass era; he finds it more artistic and less theoretical. Sottsass started experimenting with ceramics in 1955, and Zana built up a collection of around 15, including many key pieces. “I was lucky to be interested back when nobody else was,” Zana claims, saying the ceramics were underappreciated at the time they were made, especially since most were unique pieces and Sottsass changed his approach practically every year.
Zana’s portfolio is highly influenced by Sottsass. “He showed me that you could be contemporary while using old materials and bringing back ancient techniques,” he says, pointing to a little round box Sottsass made with bands of color and a leather strap, its clay body roughened by the addition of grog, a raw ceramic material dating back to the Bronze Age.
Walking around his apartment, Zana pauses at a shelf in the wall of his vast living room and picks up various pieces that will appear in the show, caressing the curves of a striped terracotta chalice and the sensuous contours of a Fumo vase meant to resemble smoke.
On the landing at the top of the stairs, Zana removes a pink ceramic disk from the head of a large 1966 totem with black and white stripes, a personal favorite. These totems were inspired by menhirs, ziggurats, and gas pumps—but also, Zana explains, by pills. “Sottsass was very sick in 1962 and he took pills, gelatin capsules. In the night he was delirious, so he made constructions from these gelcaps, saying, ‘Medication is taking me up to the sky.’”
In the fireplace sits a piece accented with ropes and red glass that Sottsass designed in 2006 for the Sèvres porcelain factory. Zana notes that Sottsass never worked directly with his hands, but his sketches were nearly perfect. “The people at Sèvres told me that he was one of the only designers who visited the entire workshop and really understood the limits of what could be done,” he says. “He applied this understanding to his sketches, which match the finished works to the millimeter.”
Two years ago, while at the Venice Biennale, Zana went to see the newly refurbished Olivetti showroom, designed by Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa in 1957 and occupied by the typewriter manufacturer until 1984. A long-neglected treasure, it features an irregular central staircase, a glass mosaic floor of varying colors, Venetian stucco, and Aurisina marble on the walls. “I thought it was crazy that nobody visits it,” Zana says. He realized it would serve as the perfect framework for the ceramics, since Sottsass collaborated with Olivetti for decades, most famously designing the cherry red Valentine typewriter in 1969.
Zana met his hero on just a few occasions. A little more than a decade ago, they spoke at a gallery opening in Milan. The Italian, nearing 90, seemed surprised and moved that the younger man appreciated his earliest designs. Sottsass tapped him on the chest, saying, “You should be proud to be an architect.” Zana took it as paternal advice. “He was telling me that I should put my heart and soul into my work,” he recalls. “I’ll remember it all my life.”