Last year I went to Italy to interview the 89-year-old architect and designer Ettore Sottsass, Jr., for an art magazine. In retrospect, I would say I was basically a stalker with references.
Sottsass is best known as the designer of the 1969 "Valentine" typewriter, and as a co-founder of the influential 1980s Memphis design group. But my passion for him began when I stumbled on his book, The Curious Mr. Sottsass, and read a passage he wrote about his experience as an Italian soldier in World War II.
"There was nothing courageous or enjoyable about the ridiculous war I fought in. I learned nothing from it. It was a complete waste of time, especially for the 'fatherland' we sought to protect.
"My agile young body, my powerful legs, my vibrant sexuality, my unruly hair and my passionate and inquisitive mind were all stifled. The prime of my youth was wasted in producing bullshit, just to satisfy some jerk, an idiot whom I wouldn't even let do up my shoes.
"I longed for someone to comfort me during those futile, squandered years. I sought consolation from everyone I met: not just from girlfriends, friends, lovers and rivals, but from strangers whose paths I crossed only briefly and maybe never even spoke to. I looked for sympathy from refugees, deserters, traitors, prisoners and even from the enemy; the other soldiers who were just as blameless as me…."
"Those of us who were made to fight longed only to be left in peace, to sit and contemplate the mountains, the rivers, the woods, the girls and the graveyards. We wanted to be freed from our constant pity for others and the shame of being the people we were."
As I read this, I knew that Sottsass was speaking for me. The fact that I hadn't been in a war didn't matter. He was speaking for me as I raced up Fifth Avenue each morning in 90-degree heat, without breathing, waving my extra-large cup of coffee menacingly at strangers, to the mid-level job where I sat at my desk believing with what I thought was my infinite good-heartedness that everyone hated me, and any mistake I made was life-threatening. He was speaking for me as I tried to comfort myself by saying this is how everyone who works in New York City feels. After reading this, I couldn't say that to myself anymore. I didn't know what to say to myself.
I arrived in Milan, where Sottsass heads his namesake architectural firm, only to learn that he had to postpone our meeting for three days. I passed the time roaming the city, bingeing on cappuccino. Nights, I sat up in my hotel room, counting the mirrors.
At last the morning of our meeting arrived. I decided to bring Sottsass some flowers. I was thinking of those roses you can buy for eight dollars at any deli in New York. I called the concierge, who told me it was "not possible" to get flowers on such short notice. But I begged him until he said it "might be possible."
Fifteen minutes later, a bellboy came to my door holding what looked like a rosebud-covered wall mirror. Looking closer, I saw that the mirror was really a large, styrofoam oval. The pale pink rosebuds had been stuck in it, like pins.
The bellboy carried the flowers to a cab, and I rode through the city to Sottsass' apartment, visualizing my favorite picture of him, a headshot I had found on the internet where he looked exactly like Captain Kangaroo.
I walked into his building and saw him peering down at me over the railing of the white marble staircase. I was shocked at how frail he looked. Perhaps my shock showed on my face; he smiled at me sadly.
I climbed the stairs to his modest apartment, and set the flowers on his dining room table. He seemed bemused by them. "These must have been very expensive," he said, digging his thumb and forefinger deep into one of the buds, then bringing his fingers to his nose to sniff them.
Over a meal at a nearby restaurant, I started bombarding him with questions about architecture, even though it wasn't really architecture I wanted to talk to him about. Sottsass seemed tired. He said his basic idea was this: a room should have a few objects in it, and those objects should be so intense they vibrate.
I started to cry. Objects vibrated. I knew that, but I thought they did it only because I was lonely and I needed them to.
I tried to hide my sniffling but I could see that Sottsass knew, and that he felt exasperated and sorry for me and curious about the shape of my breasts all at once. And I smiled ruefully because I knew what a pain-in-the-ass stalker/journalist I must be being. And he smiled back and said, "Here is a story," as if those words would solve everything.
"My mother's family lived in a simple house between a river rushing down and a train track," he began. "It was a very loud, very precarious place for a house. My grandfather built a bench and a table in the corner of the house where we would eat our meals. And we would have this terrible soup, a potato and flour soup, and my grandfather would stand up before the meal and say 'Thank you for this terrible soup!' And I realized then that there was something very mysterious going on. It was then that I developed the idea, a little bit, that you have to have a very modest awareness that you are lucky and you are living."
And then he started to cry. And I stared at him in shock. But he just sat there looking back at me calmly, as his cheeks got wetter and wetter.
And I was so moved by his crying that I started to cry again. And then whole thing was so ridiculous that I couldn't stand it anymore, and I reached out to hold his hand, which was resting on his thigh.
But when I touched it, he glared at me. I sat back, horrified, and tried to figure out what I had done wrong. I couldn't believe he was upset just because I had touched his hand. Was it because I had tried to comfort him? Was it because I had tried to comfort myself?
Then I realized the real mistake that I had made had happened some time ago. I had read Sottsass' writing, and believed that he was like me. But Sottsass was not like me. I felt foolish for having to come to Milan to figure that out. But I also felt relieved. I stopped crying. I folded my hands together in my lap and waited for Sottsass to stop crying, too.
The waiter brought us more water. I listened to Sottsass clear his throat.
Later, I flew back to New York and wrote an article about architecture.