A Classic French Home With Iconic Memphis Design

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…

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