Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

High Designs

Olabuenaga House, 1989-97, in Maui. Photo by Grey Crawford.

What does a computer look like? We recognize them now as slim and metallic, but not so long ago they were bubbly and candy-colored. Before that they were black and boxy. Before that they filled rooms, attended by staff. (Before that, computers were staff.) Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007), the Italian architect, designer and provocateur, was one of the first to grapple with the character of these new objects in the office landscape.

Sottsass was hired by the electronics manufacturer Olivetti in the late 1950s to design the first computer made in Italy, the Elea. For him to succeed, something strange had to be domesticated, or urbanized or organized. It was hard to say which. Olivetti’s electronics division in Pisa “was a world of science fiction, inhabited by engineers in white coats moving among mountains of wires and valves,” in the telling of Sottsass’s biographer (and widow) Barbara Radice. His solution was to treat the mainframe as a city, with aluminum skyscrapers attached to infrastructure in the sky. Those skyscrapers — smooth-sided, wardrobe-size boxes — were scaled to humans, to avoid alienation for their ­engineers. A grid of color-coded metal channels carried cables and wires overhead, allowing for rearrangement and future growth. With the Elea, Sottsass created just one of his many totems for the modern age, designing bridges between the handmade (or hand-computed) past and the machine-made future.

A new, comprehensive monograph on Sottsass by Philippe Thomé includes all of these totems, from the adorable Valentine typewriter to the suave Alessi fruit bowl, the Meccano-set modernism of the Elea to the color explosion of Memphis.