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Art Curatorial

From the Collection–Ettore Sottsass’ “Carlton” Bookcase

Ettore Sottsass, "Carlton" Bookcase/Room Divider, 1981. Milwaukee Art Museum, Centennial Gift of Gilbert and J. Dorothy Palay. Photo by John R. Glembin.

Postmodern design is a difficult thing to pin down or describe concisely. It refers to all manner of playful, ornamented, subversive, and/or heady things. The aesthetic is often likened to 1980s popular objects like Swatch wristwatches, but the designer’s meaning often runs much deeper.

For instance, Ettore Sottsass’s Carlton bookcase (1981) doesn’t immediately convey its rich meaning. When we first see it standing boldly outside the 20th-century Design gallery at the Museum, we see that it is brightly colored. We think it seems impractical for book storage. We might find the stick figure silly. Why is this a design classic? Why is it so important that the Museum keeps it on view?

Maybe because Carlton breaks a lot of rules? It is shockingly unconventional for a bookcase.