Memphis remembered

the london design museum has celebrated the 20th anniversary of the birth of memphis, the famous group of italian designers guided by ettore sottsass , with an exhibition of represantive furniture and other design-objects.
this retrospective that marks a renewed interest for the 1980 esthetics also analyses its influence on contemporary design and architecture

in 1981 at the milan furniture fair, the world of design was shattered, visitors discovered after years of rationalism a collection of strange furniture with flashily coloured plastic laminates emblazoned with kitsch geometric and leopard-skin patterns usually found in 1950s comic books or cheap cafés.

jasper morrison, marc newson and others who were students at that time, were deeply influenced by these new visions on design. jasper morrison remembers breaking into "a kind of cold sweat" and a "feeling of shock and panic" when he stumbled into the opening of a design exhibition at the arc ’74 showroom in milan on 18 september 1981. "it was the weirdest feeling," he recalled years later, "you were in one sense repulsed by the objects, or i was, but also immediately freed by the sort of total rule-breaking."

the memphis collection (named after a bob dylan song) was the product of the work of a score of designers, manufactured by a host of suppliers with a group of supporters that included two craft makers – renzo brugola and fausto celati, ernesto gismondi, artemide’s owner as well as mario and brunella godani proprietors of the arc ‘74 show-room, the venue chosen for the memphis event, and of course, ettore sottsass and some of his friends : martine bedin, aldo cibic, michele de lucchi, matteo thun , marco zanini, andrea branzi, george sowden, nathalie du pasquier, peter shire, hans hollein, masanori umeda. the us architect, michael graves, also joined the collective: as did javier mariscal from spain, arata isozaki and shiro kurumata from japan.

sottsass and his collaborators were thinking about the creation of a new international style. a style that would poke fun at the defensive stockades, the barriers and enclosures that littered the landscape of design in italy that confined the universe of objects to the geometry of good design. this sort of ‘prohibition’ was to be replaced by a sensibility that was half art déco half pop, appealing part to an élite taste, and part populist, half serious half tongue in cheek. it was based on an acceptance that the imagery of even the highest culture is sooner or later consumed by the everyday world.

at the same time sottsass, like mendini with his work at alchimia, also grasped that if high culture could become populist, then the opposite was also true. what has come down can also go up again, in design too. hence, the memphis objects clearly manifest the concept of retrieving the most ordinary everyday images, forms and colours and transforming their meaning by raising them to the status of élite objects.

little about memphis was truly innovative. most of its concepts had been trail-blazed by alchimia , the radical late 1970s italian design group to which sottsass and de lucchi had belonged. perfectly in tune with an era when pop culture was dominated by the post-punk flamboyance of early 1980s new romanticism, memphis was also a colourful, clearly defined manifestation of the often obscure post-modernist theories then so influential in art and architecture.

memphis was splashed across magazines worldwide. there were exhibitions in london, los angeles, tokyo, san francisco, new york and back in milan. but sottsass became increasingly disillusioned with memphis and the media circus around it, in 1985 he announced that he was leaving the collective.

the talents that formed the group or rather collaborated with it, even if only once, were exceptional. they have continued to produce objects and architecture, that is usually of consistently high and sometimes extremely innovatory, quality.

memphis represented a point of no return for italian design, a declaration of war on the past – and, equally, of surrender to the future – by a generation of designers that is today having difficulty rediscovering the anti-classical sparkle. in fact we have started the 21th century without many new ideas having emerged in the field of design to match the impact of that first memphis collection unveiled 20 years ago.

"what, after all this, is the purpose of memphis?".
"the purpose of memphis is to exist".
ettore sottsass, 1982
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