a curious mind

From Ettore to the World

A man of distinguished talent with a prolific body of work, this letter by Ettore Sottsass embodies his vision (a kind of manifesto) that calls us to celebrate, nurture and sustain the human spirit through the act of design. 


Ettore Sottsass - A letter to the Designers

Originally published in 80s Style: Designs of the Decade (Albrecht Bangert and Karl Michael Armer; 1990)

Dear designers,

To tell you the truth, I don’t know if this letter is addressed to you, or to ‘Design’ itself (the Spirit that pursues us all), or to myself, in order to clarify my thoughts. It is perhaps a truism that every letter is addressed to someone, even if that person is unknown (even if that person is oneself). For this I beg your indulgence. 

This letter is not intended to carry the same weight as the epistles written by philosophers and apostles of ancient times; letters provoked by events with catastrophic implications for the tribe, the nation, the planet. This is just an ordinary letter, a letter like a friendly boomerang: once you have received it I hope it will come back to me, possibly to reassure me.

This is a letter about the Eighties, about the symbols, the words and phrases that we have selected for use in pursuing out lives through the decade known as the Eighties; about the symbols, words and phrases we have employed to mark out the stage on which, during this time, we have played out our existence; and lastly about the symbols, words and phrases with which we have attempted, and still attempt to cross the time threshold. 

There is no doubt that during this decade the creation and consumption of Design has exploded like a Nova. Industrial logic, as it proceeds towards its destination (wherever that may be) has identified a potent force in Design, a five-star argument, in fact, for continuing the distribution throughout the planet of millions of products, for communicating with ever increasing sections of the world’s populations. The project is not simply to broadcast the benefits of consumption, but to communicate at a deeper level as well, opening the soul to its own secret wishes, unbridled longings, inexpressible desires.

In my opinion the most urgent need for nearly everybody, as the peoples of the world gradually gain self-confidence and approach a more sophisticated awareness of the possibilities life offers, is the need for an identity, a desire to ‘be’, to exist, to possess substance, whether real or imaginary. This is as true for whole tribes and populations as it is for small clans, small family groups, for people on their own, for individuals.

Now, as I said before, Design has become a powerful force because it is nothing more nor less than a metaphor for existence, a metaphor for the land and the sea, for rooms, implements, clothes, gestures - and also for the dreams, the aspirations, the knowledge and the ignorance which we debate endlessly with ourselves and with others.

The problem today is that once contact has been made with people’s secret souls — once the tribe (or the populace, the clan, the family, the single man or woman) has been made to understand that absolutely anyone is capable of designing, or dreaming, desiring, possessing, then nothing can stop them from dreaming, desiring, designing. A chain reaction is set off: the Nova explodes. As I see it, the chain reaction was set off in the Sixties. Now at the end of the Eighties, the flames, the smoke and vapours of the explosion can be seen more clearly.

Dear friends, I think one could say that we are only now beginning to feel the buffeting of post-cataclysmic winds. We are about to be cauterised or burnt up in tempestuous flames, we are about to be suffocated or poisoned by the gases escaping from the earth’s crust. It is important to be aware of this, and to talk about it. 

It is important to know that we may be trapped and crushed by these great industrial mechanisms, who’s logic and systems can never be fully mastered, let alone controlled. 

Alternatively, we may be trapped and crushed by the mechanisms of seduction proffered by industrial culture, aimed as they are at reaching deep into the hearts and minds of absolutely everyone, without any exceptions.

I believe that our only way of escape is to know exactly where we stand, and not to delude ourselves that we can act ‘outside’ the great plan that industrial ‘culture’ has in store. Any attempt to do so, to build up a culture outside or parallel to industrial culture is, at present, more or less doomed to failure; to being absorbed, engulfed in the onrush of primitive power, overwhelmed by the irresistible charm of industrial culture.

I do not believe that any destiny awaits us at presents other than proffered by industrial-technological logic. This is not the destiny of individuals, of individual cases or events. It is global, planetary, a huge historical event. I see nothing on the horizon to indicate any movement towards another culture, certainly nothing forceful enough to suggest that industrial culture is about to be superseded. 

I think I can say that with calm certainty, and I think I can also say that the territory, or territories over which we can operate are those where existence and the future of industry meet head-on. In other words, that the debate about Design belongs within these precise limits, within the anxious, dramatic, complicated, urgent landscape.

I believe I can also state that the aim of Design is more than ever to propose metaphors, i.e. to propose ever vaster systems of figurative language which ail give new dignity, new clarity, new serenity to existence, cowering as it is before barbaric invasion of industrial and cultural technology which threatens to overpower it. 

Escaping to the South or the North, to the East or West, into private solipsism, acts of aggression, unsatisfactory romantic nostalgia, or obsessional technological rhetoric will leave no mark. It merely serves to oil the sophisticated wheels of industrial logic in motion. 

I believe that it is high time that we who term ourselves designers opposed the primitive barbarism of industrial culture, putting in its place something more dignified, something more conscious of the value of existence; we must create a radiant vision of people’s desires for serenity, for happiness, for play, for pleasure.

There! This is the letter I have been so bold as to address to other friends who like me call themselves designers. This letter brings good wishes, nothing more, and is written in the hope that, like a boomerang, it will return to me bringing with it hope and good luck. 

Ettore Sottsass