More than thirty thousand international passengers pass through Terminal 1 of Milan Malpensa Airport every day, but few among them are aware that the multicolored 15-by-15-inch composite terrazzo floor tiles they’re setting foot on are part of an overall design scheme by none other than Ettore Sottsass, the undisputed 20th-century Italian design icon who is perhaps best known as the founder of the short-lived yet influential 1980s design group Memphis. In 1994, when Terminal 1 was conceived, Sottsass had already been shaping the Italian design landscape for almost fifty years, from his early designs for Olivetti in the 1950s to later commissions for private homes. For Malpensa the Tyrolean–born design whiz conjured up interiors that were a departure from the daring feats of architectural engineering and cold, glossy surfaces of chrome and polished marble that greet passengers at most international airports. With walls of pink and tan unfinished stone, streamlined counters and columns in muted teal, rough plastic laminates, simple geometry, and familiar shades, Sottsass intended to recall the comfort of commonplace Italian environments — think bar tabacchi in gelateria hues. Shortly before his death in 2007 he wrote about the design process: “What we envision is a place where information can be seen to be a convenient accompaniment to passengers, and not as an aggressive intrusion into their doubts, perplexities, tiredness, and solitude.” If the result, including the nondescript color scheme of the terrazzo, may sometimes seem remarkably unremarkable, that was precisely the intention.
Felix Burrichter is the founder and editor in chief of PIN-UP magazine.
PAVILLON DE L’ESPRIT NOUVEAU: A 21st Century Show Home curated by Felix Burrichter is on view at the Swiss Institute Contemporary Art New York through November 8.