How the Memphis Design Movement made a comeback

This article is part of our latest special Design report, about creatives finding new ways to interpret ideas from the past.

Calling a chair or a bookcase “revolutionary” may seem like a stretch, but for the design world, the original spectacle of the Memphis design movement was as genuinely shocking as the Sex Pistols’ debut performance. But unlike his revolutionary punk predecessors, Ettore Sottsass, the founder of this design moment, certainly knew the rules he was breaking when the Memphis Group made his debut in Milan 40 years ago.

He was as enthusiastic about designing professional computers and typewriters for Olivetti as he was about producing phallic-looking ceramics. There had been nothing more disruptive in the design world than the Memphis Collective since Walter Gropius had opened the doors of the Bauhaus more than half a century earlier.

What Sottsass could not have foreseen was that decades later there would also be another upstart version of the movement.

The movement’s revival exists in the echo chamber of social media, where it has taken on a life of its own, continually fueled by new injections of fame and nostalgia – an essential ingredient for the versatile media mixer that extracts the recent past. for imaging.

The first wave of Memphis had passed long before the birth of Cara Delevingne, the English actress and singer. But when Architectural Summary posted images of her London home, designed by architect Tom Bartlett in 2018, it wasn’t much of a surprise to find Sottsass’ Carlton bookcase and Callimaco floor lamp in her living room. They seem seductive and cute in this context, rather than dangerously subversive.

Like Ms. Delevingne, Raquel Cayre, who has a popular Instagram account she named @Ettore Sottsass, is not yet 30 years old. Just before the confinement of the Covid, she made an image-building appear for a photography gallery start-up in a space on Canal Street in New York that was partly populated by Memphis furniture; she’s included entirely non-Memphis creations like Norman Foster’s Nomos table and a pair of 1928 Rene Herbst chairs — a promiscuous mix that echoes her Instagram account.

Memphis is also popular on the wilder shores of the decorating industry, as evidenced by Sasha Bikoff’s design work for the 46th Annual Kips Bay Decorators Show in 2018. She left the resembling location following an explosion at a paint factory.

To remind us that there is more to Memphis than social media posts with a hazy view of history, Sottsass has become the subject of a series of serious museum retrospectives. The last, “Ettore Sottsass: the magic object”, opened at the Center Pompidou in Paris this month. (It follows recent Sottsass exhibitions at the Triennial Milan Design Museum and the Met Breuer At New York.)

The key message from Pompidou curator Marie-Ange Brayer is that there is more to Sottsass than the patterns and colors of Memphis that have become part of a boilerplate nostalgia for the 1980s. Ms Brayer shows the depth and breadth of Sottsass’ work, not only as a designer, but also as an artist, photographer and architect.

In the exhibition she included Sottsass’s beverly, a piece of furniture from 1981 that encapsulates the elements of Memphis by combining a sideboard with an integrated light fixture in the form of a bare bulb protruding from a chrome-plated steel tube.

In 1981, at least 2,000 people tried to cram into a kitchen showroom near the Duomo in Milan, which had been emptied for the first exhibition in Memphis. Some have managed to glimpse the furniture designed by Sottsass and his young collaborators, including Michele De Lucchi, Nathalie Du Pasquier, Aldo Cibic, George Sowden and Matteo Thun. They were supported by the contributions of two veterans of postmodernity: Michael Graves and Hans Hollein, as well as Peter Shire, the maverick artist from Los Angeles.

Technologically, there was nothing new in the brightly colored and eccentrically shaped tables, chairs and sofas, along with a few clocks and even a TV finished in green and black patterned laminate, which made up the first collection. He relied on humble materials and conventional furniture-making techniques for what was nonetheless a powerful statement of a new aesthetic approach. For Sottsass, Memphis demonstrated that there was more to contemporary Italian design than polished good taste.

Memphis tried to have it both ways, mixing high art and popular culture; the name referred to both the Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and the ancient Egyptian city.

What was most shocking at the time was the palette: brash combinations of luscious nursery colors mixed with tattoo designs on every available surface. Depending on the cultural disposition and age of the observer, it seemed either mildly threatening or extremely liberating.

“It sent shockwaves through academia in Europe, for sure,” said Jasper Morrison, one of the most sober and successful designers of his generation, who was born in Memphis in the age of 20, told Domus magazine. . “Suddenly you might be like, ‘Why can’t I do this, it’s okay, if that’s what’s happening.'”

A tidal wave of publicity followed the debut. Suddenly, Memphis was everywhere, from fast fashion boutiques in Australia and Germany to Karl Lagerfeld’s new home in Monte Carlo, which he filled with pieces from that first collection. Sottsass decorated a boat for collector Jean Pigozzi and built houses for art dealer Bruno Bischofberger in Switzerland; architect Maya Lin’s husband, photography dealer Daniel Wolf, Colorado; and Silicon Valley designer David Kelley in California. David Bowie became a collector. After his death, Sotheby’s auctions his Memphis furniture with his art, and even his bright red Sottsass-designed Valentine portable typewriter, which cost $65,000.

Memphis had entered the language of popular culture and advertising. Its emergence coincided with architectural postmodernism. But Sottsass never considered himself a postmodernist. He saw himself as going beyond style and returning to the fundamentals of architecture. He recruited Michael Graves and Arata Isozaki, who were truly card-carrying postmodernists, to demonstrate the global reach of what he curtly called “the new international style” in reference to Philip Johnson’s first MoMA exhibition. But Sottsass was personally much closer to Shiro Kuramata, whose contribution to Memphis was exquisite and refined. terrazzo table.

For Sottsass, the Memphis aesthetic of 1981 was not necessarily meant to last. His goal was to free design from the burden of the modern movement mantra, demonstrate that form doesn’t have to follow function, and then move on.

He left Memphis in 1986. “Any strong idea lasts very little time,” he would say later. “Strong ideas are strong, but they cannot be developed, they are what they are. They fall like lightning, they are there, but finished.

Sottsass could not have predicted fashion’s unstoppable tendency to consume itself and other forms of creativity in pursuit of visually arresting images. When a fashion brand is at full throttle, releasing five collections a year, it’s hard to do anything else in the relentless pursuit of novelty. The brand is reduced to ransacking everything at the source: art, architecture and design.

Memphis has been an important part of fashion’s food chain ever since Miuccia Prada used a vintage print by Nathalie Du Pasquier for her Miu Miu collection in 2006. Memphis has become a source of inspiration, delivered more or less skillfully by designers ranging from Bill Gaytten to Dior’s Fall Winter 2011 collection, worn by Katy Perry for the MTV Video Music Awards, to Anthony Vaccarrello’s collaboration with Memphis for Saint Laurent this year. He understood sneakers with a microbial pattern transplanted from a Sottsass lamp and a Sottsass silk pouch.

Although there have been no new Memphis models since 1989, the company is still in business and manufactures the original parts. These were never editions and are relatively affordable. Sottsass’ financial backer for Memphis Ernesto Gismondi, owner of lighting company Artemide, retained control of the Memphis name after Sottsass left, later selling it to Alberto Bianchi Albrici, who had been its managing director and now operates under the Memphis Milano brand name.

For British-born Mr. Sowden, one of Sottsass’ collaborators, it’s the freedom to experiment offered by Memphis that matters most and gives him longevity. “There is no Memphis style,” he said. “Memphis is an attitude.”

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