Originally published in Domus 433/December 1965
This time they told me I had to write the article by myself and this is a big problem. You have the idea of creating some furniture, then you have to design it, then you have to manage the carpenters who make it (the furniture), then the photographers are too busy—you also have to photograph it (the furniture) —then you have to prepare the exhibit and then they tell you—on top of everything—that you have to write the article and instead, I was in Paris and the editors couldn't find me and now there's a big rush.
But in Paris the other day I was on the first floor at Vog watching hundreds of teenagers carrying schoolbooks in their arms the way teenagers do. They climbed the narrow staircase, pushing in front of each other to get there in time to buy T-shirts, jackets, furs, pullovers, hats, skirts, stockings, socks and other clothes: funny-looking multi-colored stuff, cut straight—more or less straight—with hems and without hems, short skirts above the knee, like tin boxes dressed in opaque stockings, legs covered in colored opaque stockings; not Marlene legs (sex legs) but the legs of the dress that are dressed all the way down to the shoes that become clothing as well (the shoes).
When I was in Paris the other day on the first floor of Vog, the whole thing started to be fun. I saw how the girls were dressed and how they would be dressed. They were wearing pieces of clothing put together they way parts of a mechanism or automobile body parts are put together, in shocking relationships, no longer with any gradations, pendants, a color that goes with this and a color that goes with that and a matching handbag and those normal things etc. The girls were getting dressed as if they were strange astronauts, dressed from head to toe—but with no head, no arms, no feet—they looked like signals, or signs, as if to say YOUNG GIRL or TEENAGER or even WOMAN; and the women will come too if they are convinced that arms, legs, breasts, feet and head can become a semantic game of a different kind in which sex is almost taken for granted. If there is the sign "girl," there is also the sign sex, love and so on.
After these robotic forms, the colors were like plaster or car paints and the materials were like plaster or cement or plastics or metals or even car paints and it almost seemed like there were no fabric—that stuff that sways, that rustles, that rests, that signals, as women say, that reveals and hides. The clothes were like packaging. Industrial design, for girls' bodies, for the true mechanism, for that real machine that is a girl's body; or that was there in any case. And anyway I'm sure it worked well and the teenagers went up the stairs by the hundreds with school books in their arms to buy their packaging, their little signs with which to gad about, transmit, communicate, in their sweet, amazing, vibrant small universe of girls.
I was there and watched, like an old idiot ruined by culture, and I wondered if and how that show had something to do with the revival of the "Liberty" style [Italian version of Art Nouveau] and then it occurred to me that the revival of "Liberty", the "new Liberty" as Banham says, has nothing to with this. Suddenly, in a flash, it became definitively clear that the so-called new Liberty is not nothing but a short adventure—the short-range idea of a provincial society, middle-class-new-rich (born with the boom and gone with the boom)—an antiquarian's adventure, just a little more posh and more hermetic than Palazzo Strozzi with its slogan, antiquities for everyone.
The Liberty revival works well for the ladies who read Jardin des Mode or Marie Claire or Plaisir de France, for forty-year-old Parisians fond of Chanel No. 5, of their hairdressers, those who have followed, and follow, in the footsteps of Danielle Darrieux and Michele Morgan; ladies that are, as they say, "trim," somewhat masculine, but with the kidney shaped dressing table in their bedrooms, ladies who go to the city to find sales and spend less, who wear Carvin and say, "To take some coldness away from modern, you need some antiques." But Medieval and Renaissance are too expensive, so they are content with Louis Philippe and that is how they know who Toulouse Lautrec was; and it is here that Liberty comes into play and the Can-Can and Belle Epoque mix with the U.S. Thirties and the Jazz age mixes with Mackintosh and Morris, while the eye does not entirely move away from the Provencal style, because—latest desire—there should be a country house with Provencal terrines just as, in Italy, the left-wing middle class should have a house built by an architect, a Berlagesque house, an almost Liberty house.
An almost Liberty house, a Berlagesque house, is a tired story, sapless and lifeless; it is a story of modest thinking, conceived only on the drawing boards, an airless business. But at Vog, things are different. Teenagers by the hundreds climb the stairs, pushing; they are full of vitality, energy, civilization. The girls are well aware that life is on their side; they know that they are the masters of their lives and will conquer life; they will conquer young men and make love and have children. They will not need kidney-shaped dressing tables because their hair grows below their shoulders; they do not need anything fussy because their gestures and their trajectories indicate enough. They will not need Liberty because they know nothing about liberty; they know nothing of the Can-Can; they have nothing to do with the Jazz Age. Their age is their age; the age is what they (the teenagers) are doing with their funny oilcloth clothes, with their white astronaut boots when they take the bus every morning to go to school. I looked at them, my hair now a little too gray. And the biggest disappointment was not so much that my hair was gray, but that I was taken aback by the girls' aggressiveness. They beat me to the punch because what I had wanted to do with my furniture they had already done with their clothes, with their car paint, their white oilcloth boots, their multi-colored stockings—in stripes, checks, polka-dots.
Because in reality, in the last five, six or eight years of the century, in those years from 1950 to 1960, from which the century is now going down the other side, beyond its tunnel, big things have happened regarding the theory of images.
All the movements, revolts, inventions, ruptures, manifestos, all the stories that have accumulated in the first fifty years, brought about by hopes, utopias, programs and forecasts, have borne their true fruits. And their fruits are now here and we have them in our hands—in a kind of fruit and vegetable shop of the second half of the century and we can already buy these fruits; we know what they cost and what they are made of.
These fruits are the extreme virulence and aggressiveness of the images that are appropriated by the masses and also the extreme virulence with which, in some way, with totally unexpected, unplanned, unexpected routes, a direct relationship is being established between the masses and images—the shapes, symbols, signs that the masses use—also because they are forced to, or rather conditioned, but also because they condition, in a sort of dramatic and disastrous, but also vital, discourse taking place between the centers of power and those modern slaves who are the masses. The teenagers are the masses: the teenagers with their presumption, arrogance, vulgarity, but also with their vitality and that's it. I tried to grasp, as far as I could, the possible terms of a new vitality and I tried to grasp, where I could, the shapes, colors, symbols that might represent this way of changing a century's image of intellectual organization into a pure reality, into a kind of pure vital energy.
All terms, relationships, controls of classic organizations have crumbled—destroyed to make room for new images that flash on and off here and there, caused by vital explosions wherever they are, by sexual charges, heroic ambitions, frenetic activity, by repentance, selfishness, terror and insolence in a kind of chaotic landscape, confused, arrogant and overwhelming like the landscapes of Medieval Europe, the Medieval Orient or Medieval Mexico or whatever; like the landscape of an abandoned garden, of a tropical garden where the abandoned vegetation wins over or submerges all orders, where life is layered upon death, where those who live on climb over and smother those who are dying and where the final image is that of a total energy that ceaselessly auto-constructs.
What does this have to do with my furniture? My furniture is a trivial thing and doesn't matter at all. But the idea would be to invent new total possibilities, new forms, new symbols: to climb over the things that are dying to see if it's possible to project other energy, other vitality, other dynamics into people's lives.
from Domus 892 May 2006
Los Angeles is holding a large retrospective exhibition to celebrate 65 years of work by Ettore Sottsass - a humanist who has always placed human relationships above good middle-class taste. Text by Peter Zellner. Edited by Karen Marta, Loredana Mascheroni