Snake Essay 005: Why is the furniture canon so out of wack?
How Sottsass, a calculator and the BFI film list explains how we are lost
I was profiled a couple weeks ago in’s Herb Sunday Substack, and was thinking about thoughts Sam wrote up in another letter, a while ago:
About canon, its remaking and how it’s shifting from mainstream to the edge. The argument—and you should read it—feels in response to the fact that there’s more stuff now, but it feels like it’s a mess. Canon used to be simple: there were only so many things worth knowing about. People decided these things. But now it’s an inundation.
I’m going to try and explain design canon’s shakiness with this Ettore Sottsass calculator:
that I wrote about briefly in this week’s Observer.
Sottsass designed it in 1970. He is/was a genius. That’s the context. He’s a god. The short bio is that he was one of the most giant and alive and important designers, period, ever. Which is just a sentence, the kind of overstatement used to sell things and which therefore can be ignored. But it’s true. Demigod. His work, classic Italian modern design, and, later, more radical items, speaks for itself. He’s without peer. Here are some of his hits:
Olivetti typewriter—1968, originally conceived by Sottsass* as having NO LOWER CASE LETTERS (INCIDENTALLY, A GOOD STYLE OF POSTING; WENT OUT OF STYLE IN LIKE 2003, EZEC (CROWN OF THORNZ/GRAFFITI) STILL HOLDS TRUE TO THE FORM AND MY FRIEND CHARLIE BROUGHT IT BACK FOR A BIT A DECADE AGO) and orange accents. Orange and red! Maybe the best-designed accessory ever made.
Any vase—an oversimplification, but the vases Sottsass made stack with, to me, anything in the form. Like, stuff from 1,000 years ago. Some, obviously, are less good than others. But the best are… something. The Yantra is very good, and there’s also the one that looks like a dick. Look that up if you want.
Carlton room divider — this is obvious, a very insane piece of work. You’ve seen it; in many magazine editorials. Unbelievable in person. Reference Point in London has one in their window.
Lots of work from the 1980s, some described here:
Andmore from then, like a telephone.
Sottsass made his reputation on the red typewriter, which was, for design, a before and after moment. Things changed after that. (It’s available, you can buy one on eBay for not very much money.) He also helped found Memphis Milano group, a radical design/arch group, in 1980. He was the senior guy there. What’s notable about this is that he created and supported this… difficult group, which called many design traditions into question, well into his career, and in middle age. He could have just collected checks and had an easy, comfortable life. Jim Walrod said as much in an interview a while ago:
That I mentioned in another piece before. Walrod’s an instructive quote here, because a decade ago he’s who effectively unearthed Sottsass. Before Walrod began championing Sottsass’ work and re-defining him, ES’ place in the design environment was much different. The design environment more conservative in its tastes—mid-modern, Danish, quieter furniture—and much smaller. Some of this was technological—regular people just didn’t know much outside the basics. And so people in the design world liked or loved him, sure. But he didn’t really translate to civilians… he was too tough. Nobody, outside fringe collectors or industry workers was interested in Sottsass’ work—and, even then, for themselves, not as something to publicize. (This wasn;’t the case in Europe, FWIW.) Then over the past few years things changed.
Books were released (an especially massive one by Philip Tome in 2014; it’s very good), his furniture was placed front and center in magazine articles, editorials, art exhibits, the mirror was everywhere… there was a helpful IG account that archived his work by a collector who herself held a (great) exhibition of his work years ago. He was added, slowly, to the canon. The idea is that hey, we missed this guy. He’s a giant. Acceptable. People who didn’t work in furniture for a living or think about chairs before going to sleep could now take Sottsass in.
This is all a massive oversimplification, to be sure, but it shows, I think, how canon’s not static, and changes every few years, maybe every decade. And, more than that, there’s something else alongside the canon—something more vague.
Canon seems to me mostly a professional/industry structure. There are rules—who’s in, who’s out—that are not less by the artists involved as they are by the scenes and businesses around them, so the folks who work around them can evaluate their production more easily, display it and explain it to people, and so that everyone, including sometimes the artist, can make money. Canonized art sells for more; it’s an easier pitch, it’s a more immediate story, it’s a safer investment. These ordering principles are very important; otherwise there are no boundaries. You can only have so many folks on one stage.
The other thing’s a little more vague—it’s what people who make stuff like, who they think are big, who they’re inspired by. It’s also defined by consumers. Maybe the word is trend. I think this influences the other more than we care to admit, and it’s one reason why tastes and ideas and discussions change.
Back to furniture. There’s more stuff out there now because of technology. And since canon’s a professional effort, and since professional standards have been eroding—no criticism jobs and the like—it’s felt like the canon’s eroded. For film, let’s say, there’s BFI list, the ideas of a few working critics, books, exhibits, what some cinemas are programming, what young filmmakers are interested in (maybe) and so on. And there’s what’s available to whatever consumer. The first bunch of stuff used to keep the other at bay. Now they’re just side by side.
And with furniture… well, it’s tougher. There’s never been any stable, legitimate institutional information for design that regular people can access—a topic for another essay… it’s impossible to find out what mattered when besides very obvious choices. (Try looking up Compasso D’Oro winners.) And it’s only been a few years that someone Sottsass, who was a complete, no-contest demigod, has begun to be understood. So his crap is even tougher to find.
But it’s more than just that. Canon’s eroded because we are in a strange and vague technological age. The slim canon of old, defined as the best of the best—mid-modern, a decade ago—only gets heeded in professional circles. Everyone else has, in the past few years, seen more. People like Sottsass aren’t left in the dark. It’s more than just a couple dozen geniuses from one era sharing the stage.
But it feels like a mess because there’s no context. Who are all these people? What have they done? These are, I think, natural questions. In an environment where most people are caught up on the basics, or the 201s, of design and furniture, re-centering someone difficult and strange like Sottsass requires a bit of an adjustment. Or, at least, details… information. Is Sottsass as important as, I don’t know, Eames? It’s not in any book anywhere. What’s his best work? Is he still worth paying attention to? Is there anyone else on his level I should know about? How many levels ahead of everyone was he? These are crass questions… very obvious shit. But, I don’t know, why wouldn’t someone want to know these things. And while the information is there, there’s still not very much context.
In the case of Sottsass’ work, not very much has been understood. Because despite the exhibits and handful of books, he hasn’t really been written about, or debated, or staged in different ways, or analyzed—or even grown out of—in any real capacity. There’s not enough knowledge about him out there to even rebel against. There are a few books and some articles. There is this newsletter, which is reader-supported:
Thank you… but we really only have a shallow glimpse of his work. To be sure, it’s not not like another piece of writing or exhibit or what have you will be the one missing key in the universe that justifies his career. He’s only one artist. It’s just that this plankton-like ecosystem is necessary, in some ways, for a broad, competent understanding. It’s not out there now.
Here are a few other Sottsass works that rarely get discussed or mentioned:
Synthesis letter trays for the Olivetti typewriter, made in the ‘60s or so. Auctioned a decade ago for about $100. These are unbelievable
The calculator, shown way above
A teapot that is somehow available from the MoMA store.
A house he designed in Hawaii in 1997 that’s selling for $9.8 million.
Lots of stuff, scores unmentioned. I’m bringing them up not to flex here, or anything—the calculator’s not rare; it’s in the permanent collection at MoMA—but to show that even as far as geniuses go, it hasn’t gone very deep. (Compare to film: how much context is there around, I don’t know, any film by Scorsese?) In the past these items would maybe center a down-the-line gallery show of his work… or even call his big work into question. But in the state we are now, with canon, it’s just another region of mess. Not enough context… too many examples.
The reactions to this state of affairs have been mixed. One’s been to accept things and make kings of once-minor artists. That’s fine; not the biggest deal in the world, probably a natural reaction to the uber-professionalism of past canon. (I’m thinking of Gregg Araki; his movies, then, had to fight for exposure. Now he’s correctly positioned as one of the giants of his era.) The other is people turning away and ignoring it. This comes out in lots of writing that’s tacitly about canon, I feel, in which everything, in this moment, right now, is stated as boring, or embarrassing, or something like that. Is there good taste anymore? A writer might ask… why does anyone try to stick out? I think that line of reasoning is a snitch on oneself: there’s clearly good stuff out there, but they aren’t seeing it. Which is fine. We’re all busy; eggs are now $8. And, more than that, the reaction is understandable. The floodgates have opened with everything. It’s overwhelming, and there’s no context, out there, from anyone.
I think the thing is… with design… is that how little we know might be too staggering to be understood. The thing is… Sottsass is certainly not new. Not in any way, not in any stretch of the imagination. He was, for a very long time, understood. Before his 2010s renaissance he was very much part of the professional design consensus, whatever that is, and got respect as an artist… he worked with massive companies like Knoll and Cassina, he was subject of a crap-ton of books (in the 80s), he was in MoMA’s permanent coll. (like 20 items), he went by a single name, and he more or less overshadowed in terms of reputation, the massive design movement he founded. Now he’s just another name, another guy who made cool furniture. But back then… and that’s without even mentioning the typewriter! It’s almost impossible to explain the typewriter’s significance. It changed design. There’s a Bill James line in one of his books somewhere about how if you cut Rickey Henderson in half you’d be left with two Hall of Famers. It’s like that with Ettore Sottsass.
And so, over the past five years, as more of everything has become more available, as we’ve caught up on design, as the canon has moved, nominally, past mid-modern, we’ve stuck to a story that Sottsass is new, or exciting, or back, that we’ve unearthed some wild and different designer, and hey, his mirror and bookshelf can be found in old issues of Vogue... And, to be sure, for a while in the ;80s his rep was the guy who made the typewriter, but doing other stuff now. But the reality is Sottsass was so massive for so long that it becomes disorienting to accept why he was, for decades, completely invisible. And he was invisible since design, more or less, was invisible.
As for now… who knows. It’s good that canon is melting, since it wasn’t ever really for the people, and, with furniture, even the old helpful structures are hard to find. What that means on the ground feels like two things. One is to keep pressing and thinking about who remains and who matters—who’s major, who’s nothing and so on. It would be great to have more voices, people who actually know about stuff going deep. Contradicting each other, taking tough stands. But all this, still, is a professional exercise. The real reality, I feel, is that we can bypass it. There still are not any rules. There is more stuff available now. Genius designers, like Sottsass, are glossed over; in the past, they were ignored. So the door’s open. Why would anyone want it shut?
Thanks for reading.
*corrected: an earlier version of this newsletter stated the first version of this typewriter had no lowercase letters.