How the Memphis Design movement made a comeback

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This article is part of our latest special report on design, on creative people finding new ways to interpret ideas from the past.


Calling an armchair or bookcase “revolutionary” might sound like an exaggeration, but for the design world, the original show of the Memphis design movement was as genuinely shocking as the Sex Pistols’ first performance. But unlike his revolutionary punk predecessors, Ettore Sottsass, the founder of this design moment, certainly knew the rules he broke when the Memphis group made his debut in Milan 40 years ago.

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

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

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

The first wave of Memphis had come and gone long before the birth of Cara Delevingne, the English actress and singer. But when Architectural summary posted pictures of his London home, designed by architect Tom Bartlett in 2018, it wasn’t much of a surprise to find Sottsass’s Carlton bookcase and its Callimaco floor lamp in his living room. They seem alluring 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 Covid containment, she produced an image arise for a photo gallery start-up in a space on Canal Street in New York City that was partly populated with Memphis furniture; she included entirely non-Memphis designs like Norman Foster’s Nomos table and a 1928 pair of René Herbst chairs – a mix of promiscuity 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 House in 2018. She left the scene as the day after an explosion in a paint factory.

To remind us that there is more to Memphis than social media posts with a hazy understanding 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 on from Sottsass’s recent exhibitions at Triennial Milan Design Museum and the Met Breuer At New York.)

The key message for Pompidou curator Marie-Ange Brayer is that there is more to Sottsass than the Memphis patterns and colors that are now part of a catch-all 1980s nostalgia. Ms. Brayer shows depth and the breadth of Sottsass’s 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 Memphis elements by combining a sideboard with a built-in light fixture in the form of a bare bulb protruding from a chromed steel tube.

In 1981, at least 2,000 people attempted to crowd into a kitchen showroom near the Duomo in Milan, which had been emptied for the first Memphis exhibition. 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 contributions from a few veteran postmodernists: Michael Graves and Hans Hollein, as well as Peter Shire, the maverick artist from Los Angeles.

Technologically, there was nothing new about the tables, chairs and sofas in bright colors and eccentric shapes, 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 affirmation of a new aesthetic approach. For Sottsass, Memphis demonstrated that there was more to contemporary Italian design than polished good taste.

Memphis was trying to have it both ways, mixing high art and popular culture; the name was a reference to both Bob Dylan’s 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: bold combinations of soft-toothed nursery colors mixed with tattoo designs across all available surfaces. Depending on the cultural disposition and age of the observer, it seemed either mildly threatening or wildly liberating.

“It sent shockwaves through academia in Europe for sure,” said Jasper Morrison, one of the more understated and successful designers of his generation, who was at the birth of Memphis in the age of 20, to Domus magazine. . “Suddenly you might say, ‘But why can’t I do it this way, it’s valid, 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 the collector Jean Pigozzi and built houses for the art dealer Bruno Bischofberger in Switzerland; the husband of architect Maya Lin, photographer Daniel Wolf, Colorado; and Silicon Valley designer David Kelley in California. David Bowie became a collector. After his death, Sotheby’s auctioned off his Memphis furniture with his art, and even his bright red Valentine portable typewriter designed by Sottsass, 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 going back to the fundamentals of architecture. He recruited Michael Graves and Arata Isozaki, who were true seasoned postmodernists, to demonstrate the global reach of what he dryly called “the New International Style” in reference to Philip Johnson’s first exhibition for MoMA. But Sottsass was personally much closer to Shiro Kuramata, whose contribution to Memphis was an 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 mantra of modern movement, demonstrate that form doesn’t have to follow function, and then move on.

He left Memphis in 1986. “Every strong idea lasts a very short time,” he later said. “Strong ideas are strong, but they cannot be developed, they are what they are. They descend like lightning, they are there, but finished.

Sottsass could not have predicted fashion’s overwhelming tendency to consume itself and any other form of creativity seeking visually striking images. When a fashion brand is in full swing, dumping five collections a year, it’s hard to do anything else in the relentless pursuit of novelty. The brand is reduced to ransacking everything in search of raw materials: art, architecture and design.

Memphis has been an important part of the fashion food chain since Miuccia Prada used a vintage Nathalie Du Pasquier print for her Miu Miu collection in 2006. Memphis has become a source of inspiration, delivered with varying degrees of skill. 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.

Even though there haven’t been any new Memphis designs since 1989, the company is still in business and makes the original pieces. They were never editions and are relatively affordable. Sottsass’s 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 general manager. and now operates under the Memphis Milano brand.

For Mr. Sowden, of British origin, one of the collaborators of Sottsass, it is the freedom of experimentation offered by Memphis which counts most and gives it longevity. “The Memphis style doesn’t exist,” he said. “Memphis is an attitude.”



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