This article is part our latest Design special report. It’s about creative people finding new ways to interpret ideas from history.
To call an armchair or bookcase “revolutionary”It might seem like a stretch but it is possible. designworld, the original showThe Memphis designMovement was just as shocking as the first Sex Pistols performance. This was not Ettore Sottsass’s revolutionary punk predecessors. design moment’s founder, certainly knew the rules he was breaking when the Memphis groupIn Milan, 40 years ago.
He was just as enthusiastic about creating typewriters and computers for Olivetti business as he was about making phallic-looking pottery. There had been nothing quite so disruptive in the history of the designThe Memphis collective has been the Bauhaus’ home since Walter Gropius opened its doors to the public over a half-century ago.
Sottsass had no idea that there would be a second upstart version of the movement a decade later.
The movement’s revival exists in the echo chamber of social media, where it has taken on a life of its own, continually refueled with fresh injections of celebrity and nostalgia — an essential ingredient for the all-purpose media blender that strip-mines the recent past for imagery.
Before Cara Delevingne was born, the first Memphis wave had already passed. But when did it end? Architectural Digest published images of her London house, designed by the architect Tom Bartlett in 2018, it wasn’t that much of a surprise to find Sottsass’s Carlton bookcase and his Callimaco floor lamp in her sitting room. They look seductively cute in this context and not dangerously subversive.
Raquel Cayre has an Instagram account, which she named after Ms. Delevingne. @Ettore SOttsass, isn’t yet 30. Just before the Covid lockdown she produced an image building pop-up for a photographic gallery start-up in a space on Canal Street in New York that was partly populated with Memphis furniture; she included such entirely non-Memphis designs as Norman Foster’s Nomos table and a pair of chairs by René Herbst from 1928 — a promiscuous mix that echoes her Instagram account.
Memphis is also popular on the wildest shores of the decorating industry
As witnessed by Sasha Bikoff’s designWork for the 46th Annual Kips Bay Decorator House ShowIn 2018. She left the scene looking like the aftermath a blast in a paint factory.
Sottsass is the subject of a series museum retrospectives that remind us that Memphis is much more than just a collection of photos with a fuzzy grasp of history. The latest. “Ettore Sottsass: The Magical Object,”This month, the Pompidou Center in Paris opened the doors to the exhibition. (It follows recent Sottsass shows at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Triennale designMuseum in Milan and the Met BreuerNew York.
The key message for the Pompidou’s curator Marie-Ange Brayer is that there is more to Sottsass than the Memphis patterns and colors that have become part of an all-purpose nostalgia for the 1980s. Ms. Brayer shows the depth and range of Sottsass’s work, not only as a designerHowever, you can also be an artist, a photographer, or an architect.
In the exhibition, she has included Sottsass’s BeverlyA piece of furniture that captures the essence of Memphis, this piece of furniture dates back to 1981. It combines a sideboard and a built-in light fitting. The bulb is a bare bulb that projects from a chromed steel tube.
Around 2,000 people tried in 1981 to squeeze into a Milan kitchen showroom near the Duomo. The space had been cleared for the first Memphis exhibition. Some were able to see the furniture Sottsass designed with his young collaborators, Nathalie du Pasquier, Aldo Zibic, George Sowden, and Matteo Thun. They were supported by contributions from Hans Hollein and Michael Graves, both veteran postmodernists, as well as Peter Shire (an artist from Los Angeles).
Technologically, there was nothing new about the brightly colored and eccentrically shaped tables, chairs and sofas, along with a few clocks and even a TV set finished in green-and-black-patterned laminate, that made up the first collection. It used basic materials and standard furniture-making techniques, but it was a powerful statement of a new aesthetic approach. Memphis proved that contemporary Italian design had more to it than Sottsass thought. designMore than polite good sense.
Memphis was trying to have things 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”The ancient Egyptian city.
The most shocking thing at the time was the palette. It was a brash mixture of sweet-toothed nursery colours mixed with patterns tattooed onto every surface. It seemed either mildly threatening, or wildly liberating depending on the cultural disposition of the observer.
“It sent shock waves through the academic world in Europe, for sure,”Domus magazine interviewed Jasper Morrison about his success as a designer. He was a 20-year old student at Memphis’ birth. “Suddenly you could say: ‘But why can’t I do it this way, it’s valid, if that’s what is going on.’”
The debut was met with a tsunami of publicity. Memphis was instantly everywhere.fashion shops 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 architect Maya Lin’s husband, the photography dealer Daniel Wolf, in Colorado; and the Silicon Valley designerDavid Kelley California. David Bowie became a collector. After his death, Sotheby’s auctioned his Memphis FurnitureAlong with his art, there was also his bright red Sottsass-designed Valentine portable typing machine, which sold for $65,000
Memphis was a common name in popular culture and advertising.
Its emergence coincided closely with architectural postmodernism. But Sottsass was not a postmodernist. He saw himself as going beyond the style of architecture and returning to the core principles of architecture. To show the global reach of his postmodernism, he recruited Michael Graves (who were actually card-carrying postmodernists) and Arata Isozaki (who he dryly called “global reach”). “the New International Style” in reference to Philip Johnson’s first exhibition for MoMA. But Sottsass was personally closer to Shiro Kuramata, whose contribution was a beautiful and refined one for Memphis. Table made from terrazzo.
For Sottsass, the Memphis aesthetic of 1981 wasn’t necessarily meant to last. His goal was to make life easier. design from the burden of the Modern movement mantra, to demonstrate that form doesn’t have to follow function, and then to move on.
He left Memphis in 1986. “Every strong idea lasts a very short time,”He said it later. “Strong ideas are strong, but they cannot be developed, they are what they are. They come down like bolts of lightning, they are there, but finite.”
Sottsass was not able to predict the unstoppable tendency fashionTo consume all forms of creativity, including self-creation, in search of visually arresting imagery. When you are a fashion brand is at full throttle, pouring out five collections a year, it’s hard to do anything else in the relentless pursuit of newness. The brand is reduced simply to scavenging all sources of material, art, architecture, and everything else. design.
Memphis was an important part of the fashionFood chain since Miuccia Prada’s 2006 Miu Miu collection used a vintage Nathalie du Pasquier print. Memphis became a source of inspiration, delivered with greater or lesser skill by designers ranging from Bill Gaytten for Dior’s 2011 Autumn Winter collection, as worn by Katy Perry for the MTV Video Music Awards, to Anthony Vaccarrello’s collaboration with Memphis for Saint Laurent this year. It included SneakersA microbial pattern was transferred from a Sottsass light bulb, and a Sottsass pocket square.
Although there haven’t been any new Memphis designs in the past nine years, the company is still operational and making the original pieces. These pieces are not available in limited editions and are very affordable. Sottsass’s financial backer for Memphis, Ernesto Gismondi, owner of the lighting company Artemide, kept control of the Memphis name after Sottsass left, later selling it to Alberto Bianchi Albrici, who had been his managing director and now operates under the brand name Memphis Milano.
For the British-born Mr. Sowden, one of Sottsass’s collaborators, it is the freedom to experiment that Memphis offered that matters the most and gives it longevity. “There is no such thing as Memphis style,”He said. “Memphis is an attitude.”