Ettore Sottsass
Ettore Sottsass & Sottsass Associati
Marie-Claude Beaud + Adrien Rovero, October 20, 2008
Ettore Sottsass_Photo by Luca Fregoso
Ettore Sottsass_Photo by Luca Fregoso
“Ettore Sottsass and Sèvres (1993-2006)” by Ettore Sottsass

I was working with Marie-Laure Jousset for my exhibition at the Pompidou Centre when she asked me if I was interested in creating pieces for the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres. The proposition seemed to me to be way-out, almost crazy. That must have been in 1993, a year before my exhibition. Up until then I had only designed ceramic objects, in other words, maiolica. The first ones were for a certain Mr Richards, an American who sold ceramics to interior decorators, creators of decors for private houses and more or less luxury hotels and cinema decors, which were also more or less luxurious, for Hollywood films, of the so-called pink period, thus called, I think, because the stories always had a happy ending! Everybody was rich and happy, they always got married at the end and certainly lived happily ever after. Such was the conception of life and ceramics of this Mr Richards.

But in reality, the red clay, that baked earth, had passed through the fire for thousands of years already in the world. In Italy, during the Renaissance between the 14th and 15th centuries, maiolica was produced for important and powerful Tuscan families who devoted their time to bumping each other off, producing Popes in the Vatican or getting the best artists of their time to create plates, bowls, salad bowls and other compote dishes for their sumptuous banquets. Sometimes they commissioned squares of faience or low-reliefs of small or large dimensions to decorate the piers of church doors, or to decorate the facades of monasteries or various villas. The maiolica were fragile, fired with red clay: their thickness was more than 5 or 6 millimetres, the enamels were not bright and the colours of restricted range with many yellows, some oranges, a cobalt blue, some copper green, manganese brown, black and white.

I worked with these simple materials in a studio in Montelupo, a small town about thirty kilometres east of Florence, on the Arno. It is said that the Etruscans used to fire clay drained by the river which flowed down from the Apenines to the sea near Pisa. Also, when Marie-Laure Jousset suggested I design for the Manufacture de Sèvres, I replied that I was enthusiastic even if I knew full well that I would have to radically change my way of looking at artworks. I would have to learn new production methods and become familiar with new materials. I would also have to think about the new spaces which my shapes would inhabit and those who would like them or hate them. I also had to find a way to integrate my pieces into the huge patrimonial catalogue of pieces produced by the Manufacture de Sèvres. It wasn’t like working with Mr Richards who told me: “Please don’t use Spanish blue, it doesn’t sell nowadays!”

I had to design for a long procession of ghosts of capricious and powerful kings, shadows of great queens, cultivated and probably refined mistresses, a huge crowd of phantoms of courtisans, intellectuals, philosophers and sharp thinkers. I had the feeling that the heritage of the Manufacture de Sèvres echoed the history of a whole nation and certainly not the fluctuations of the market. And in this history of Sèvres, there had never been a place for a Mr Richards. After Robert Bizot, the last director of the institution that I met, there was a civil servant from the ministry of culture, might I say a “gentleman”, a sort of aesthete, slim, straight, of great elegance.

He continually smoked slim cigarettes, in a long cigarette holder made of shell, always looking up. This cultural functionary was the son of a French general at the court of the king of Greece, where he had spent his adolescence and where he had undoubtedly learned to become the “Monsieur” that he was now. Thus it was that one day I passed through the “front entrance” and penetrated the silent landscape of the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres. I had the impression of plunging into a metaphysical landscape, as if a group of compact, white, 19th century French buildings had been abandoned in a strange antique silence, immobilised, preserved in perfect mental order along deserted streets of white sand, situated in a wooded enclave of the Parc de Saint-Cloud.

Perhaps I still felt impressed by the order, the silence, the perfect white antiqueness, as I am when faced with a large sheet of paper on which I must draw lines. Now, the bigger the paper, the more rare and precious it is, the more the trace of my gesture corrupts the untouchable magic of silence and the more I will be involved. I will no longer be able to erase myself. But on the contrary, in this silent place, when I passed through the studios nodding to the people who worked in these white edifices, permanently aspiring to a singular perfection, I was welcomed by friendly smiles, as one greets a fellow traveller, a fellow risk-taker. These intense people, who were so kind, invited me through their smiles to share the risks with them. Thus it was that I took the risk with them.

Ettore Sottsass, April 2006

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