Memphis design style is back

Posted: September 17, 2007 in creativity
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Ettore Scottsass

The International Herald Tribune carried an article today by Alice Rawthorn, announcing that the loved and loathed Memphis Design is back en vogue. Named after the Bob Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (coincidentally the song had been played repeatedly throughout the evening and the record player’s needle kept getting stuck on the last three words of the song’s title), the movement/group was founded in December 1980 by Ettore Sottsass, then in his sixties and a grandee of Italian design. He had invited invited a group of younger designers to develop a furniture collection to show at the following year’s Milan Furniture Fair. After that meeting the participants resolved to meet again with their designs in February 1981, and decided then to form a design collaborative. The group, which eventually counted among its members Michele de Lucchi, Matteo Thun, Javier Mariscal, Marco Zanini, Aldo Cibic, Andrea Branzi, Barbara Radice, Martine Bedin, George J. Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier, disbanded in 1988 when the design pendulum then swung against PoMo playfulness, and back to rationalist restraint.

The result was a highly-acclaimed debut at the 1981 Salone del Mobile of Milan, the world’s most prestigious furniture fair. According to Rawthorn, “the secret of Memphis’s success was its flair for marketing. There were long lines outside the opening party at the Milan Furniture Fair, and Sottsass posed for photographs with his young collaborators in a “conversation pit” designed by Masanori Umeda to look like a boxing ring. That image appeared in magazines all over the world, and Karl Lagerfeld placed a bulk order of Memphis furniture for his Monaco home.



Ettore Scottsass

Showy, media-savvy and an easily digestible expression of fashionable, but often obscure postmodernist theories, Memphis was perfectly attuned to the early 1980s. It was design’s equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s photo-op presidency, and all of those pantaloon-clad New Romantics – Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club – preening in early MTV promos. But there was only so much leopard-printed plastic laminate that the design world could take and, by 1985, even Sottsass was bored by it. He quit Memphis, followed by most of his young collaborators.”

Memphis was a reaction against the post-Bauhaus “black box” designs of the 1970s and it also hoped to erase the International Style where Postmodernism had failed, preferring an outright revival and continuation of Modernism proper rather than a re-reading of it; Ettore Sottsass, called Memphis design the “New International Style“. Prepared to mix 20th century styles, colours and materials, it positioned itself as a fashion rather than an academic movement, and it had a sense of humour that was lacking at the time in design. In contrast to the severity, starkness and the dark appearance of the objects of modernity (from furniture to buildings), the Memphis Group offered bright, colourful and shocking pieces. Taste of course is a highly subjective matter, but the word tasteful is generally not associated with products generated by the Memphis Group; nevertheless, they were certainly ground breaking at the time.


Ettore Scottsass

All this would seem to suggest that the Memphis Group was very superficial but that was far from the truth. The group intended to develop a new creative approach to design. They drew inspiration from such movements as Art Deco and Pop Art, styles such as the 1950s Kitsch and futuristic themes. Disagreeing with the approach of the time and challenging the idea that products had to follow conventional shapes, colours, textures and patterns, their products were conceptually in stark contrast to so called ‘Good Design’. This in turn split the world of design into those who loved the group’s work and those who absolutely hated it; until today apparently, MoMA still doesn’t have a single piece of Memphis in its collection.

That could change. According to Rawthorn, Memphis design is in demand again – not just at auctions but also as a concept underlying new design. “All of Memphis’s hallmarks – super-sizing, dizzy colors, gaudy patterns and cheesy motifs – were visible in the most directional pieces at this spring’s Milan Furniture Fair. They will surface again at this week’s London Design Festival. And cool young designers are suddenly citing Memphis and Studio Alchymia as inspirations.”


Job Smeets – Robber Baron Collection

Art and design always seem to fluctuate between similar poles: the rational, the romantic and the emotional/expressive. According to Rawthorn, “right now it is rebelling against the slickness of megabranding to chase the ‘emotional and expressive’ qualities that Job Smeets (of Studio Job) relishes in the original Memphis pieces. Design is also searching for alternatives to the delicate neo-romantic style, which was fashionable in the early 2000s.”


Karen Ryan – Untitled Light

Memphis’ influence on contemporary design can be spotted “in Marcel Wanders’s giant replicas of ornamental porcelain bells at this spring’s Milan Furniture Fair, and in the super-sized mosaic objects that Jaime Hayon exhibited there. You can see more hints of Memphis in the Day-Glo pattern of the Untitled lamp that Karen Ryan is exhibiting at designersblock in London this week, and you’ll pick them up again in the fantastical Robber Baron collection of objects that Studio Job is designing for Moss to exhibit at the Design Miami fair in Florida this December.” And “the Memphis aesthetic even chimes with what’s happening in pop culture. It is visible in the fluorescent colors worn by the New Ravers, who hang out at the London club, BoomBox, and in the gaudy graphics of SuperSuper, the style magazine, and of acid house revivalist bands, like The Klaxons. And, let’s face it, if ever an era was as showy and media savvy as the early 1980s, it’s this one.”

Jamie Hayon


Ettore Scottsass


Marcel Wanders – Antelope

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  4. […] the fame and importance of this collection, and the very high values these pieces can now achieve at auction, there are inevitably many fakes around. Memphis therefore offer a service that […]

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