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Ettore Sottsass furniture for Max Palevsky for sale this week at L.A. Modern Auctions

March 1, 2011 |  2:53 pm

At its worst, Ettore Sottsass' furniture from the 1980s was the decade's equivalent of women's zebra-patterned blazers with brassy buttons and big shoulder pads -- known for bold colors, plastic laminates and exotic wood veneers. 

But his 1980s designs in the March 6 sale at Los Angeles Modern Auctions are more solid in construction and stately in form, and they come with a stellar provenance. The pieces were custom-made by the Italian designer, who died in 2007, for Max Palevsky, the L.A. technology pioneer and art collector who died last year.

Palevsky was easily one Sottsass' most dedicated patrons. He had for years lobbied to get the Museum of Modern Art in New York to do a Sottsass retrospective. (“I even tried to bribe them,” he once said to this writer, bemoaning the museum's adherence to a rigid, Bauhausian vision of modernism.) He helped sponsor the L.A. County Museum of Art retrospective that took place in 2006. And he lived with Sottsass's bold visions by commissioning the designer to make over the interior of his palatial Spanish Colonial home in Malibu in 1984.

The March 6 sale includes nearly 20 works that Sottsass made for Palevsky, with estimates ranging  $500 to $700 for a slender wood console to $8,000 to $12,000 for a large couch anchored by an architectural table lamp that takes the form of a small temple. Three platform beds with wood headboards and built-in shelves and cabinetry are estimated at $2,000 to $3,000 each.

The sale also includes some mass-produced pieces by Sottsass, such as bowls, lighting and a pair of his 1983 Knoll chairs that are Corbusier-like in their classic-modern simplicity. (A catalog of the full sale, which also includes hundreds of lots by other designers, is online at, with a preview exhibition in the auctioneer's Van Nuys showroom through Saturday.)

Lamatable While L.A. Modern Auctions is known as a go-to place for modern design, it was not the most obvious choice for this material. Christie's was. Last year the New York salesroom landed some 250 works from Palevsky's estate, including major paintings and sculptures, which together brought about $56.5 million.

Peter Loughrey, the founder of Los Angeles Modern Auctions, says his being on the ground here helped him land this particular grouping. “I don't think they wanted to send it to New York, because the beds are over 13 feet long and one of the marble consoles alone is at least two tons.” He also suggested that the material could get lost in another sale, while he has given it star treatment with a 25-page spread in his catalog.

Loughrey says that at first glance some of this material resembles work from what is known as Sottsass' "Memphis” period, that colorful, kitschy, laminate-heavy aesthetic that helped define 1980s design. But Loughrey believes this work is higher quality: “This is fine craftsmanship, not what you're used to seeing in Memphis furniture, which is all particle board once you get past the veneer.” Loughrey suspects that Sottsass, who was a regular guest in Palesky's Malibu house, designed some of the beds for himself.

Sottsass first met Palevsky in 1978 at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where the designer had an exhibition and Palevsky had funded the design pavilion. The two “quickly bonded through their mutual interests, and they developed a deep friendship that would last three decades,” wrote curator Ronald Labaco, now at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, in the auction catalog. Asked in a phone conversation to elaborate on their common interests, Labaco mentioned “a passion for life and a love for women.” (Palevsky was married six times, Sottsass twice.)

The two had something else in common: a fascination with modern technology. Trained in mathematics and philosophy, Palevsky helped launch the field of personal computing by co-founding Scientific Data Systems and Intel. Known for working closely with the Italian manufacturer Olivetti, Sottsass made electronics and various office machines more playful and accessible -- his coup de grace being a bright red, portable plastic typewriter from 1969 called the Valentine that, in retrospect, looks a lot like an early laptop.

None of the Palevsky material in the March 6 auction has a reserve or minimum price which must be met in order for a sale to take place. Meanwhile, his beachfront Malibu home, an 11,200-square-foot estate on 6.5 acres, is on the market with an asking price of $45 million, down from the original listing of $55 million.

-- Jori Finkel



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Images, from top: Ettore Sottsass headboard with attached drawers, custom designed in 1984 for Max Palevsky's Malibu home, in the March 6 sale estimated at $2,000 to $3,000; Ettore Sottsass circular coffee table with square base from the Palevsky estate, designed in 1980 by Studio Alchymia, estimated at $1,200 to $1,500. Courtesy Los Angeles Modern Auctions.