Above – Memphis, photographed by Studio Azzurro, 1981
Memphis Design Association Founding Members were – Michele de Lucchi, Matteo Thun, George Sowden, Marco Zanini, Andrea Branzi, Aldo Cibic, Ettore Sottssas, Nathalie du Pasquier, Martine Bedin, and writer Barbara Radice
Memphis Philosophy = Form Follows Decoration
Memphis Style = Clashing colours, Asymmetrical shapes and Loud patterns
Memphis Method = Form did not have to follow function any more, and design was about Communication.
“It is no coincidence that the people who worked for Memphis didn’t pursue a metaphysic aesthetic idea or an absolute of any kind, much less eternity,” observed Sottsass. “Today everything one does is consumed. It is dedicated to life, not to eternity.”
Memphis was founded in 1981 to produce the products being designed by Ettore Sottsass and by a group of young architects and designers working with him.
It was created as a cultural laboratory for the development of new conceptual ideas and quickly became a cultural phenomenon.
After decades of modernist doctrine, Sottsass and his collaborators longed to be liberated from the tyranny of smart, but soulless ‘good taste’ in design. It was an exuberant middle finger salute to the design establishment after years in which colour and decoration had been been taboo.
Memphis scoffed at the notion that ‘Good design had to last”.
The Memphis collections were playful and polymorphic, and the 2014 Salone exhibition at the the Galleria Gruppo Credito Valtellinese – Refettorio delle Stelline was a tribute to Memphis and its designers
It celebrated the ambiguous spirit, complexity and contradictory ideas which make these objects timeless icons, in an era marked by narcissism and the culture of the ephemeral.
At that time of the early 1980’s , Memphis celebrated the new wave of optimistic social, political and economic prosperity.
Memphis also decreed the end of Post Rationalism in design and visual arts.
Even today once more, against the gray, cold and emptiness of mass production, we again yearn for a new visual landscape, suited to the emerging culture of the Post Modern Style.
Some 33 years after it first launched, the forms, patterns and colours, typical of Memphis returned to Milan’s Design Week and where able to be seen at the Galleria Gruppo Credito Valtellinese – Refettorio delle Stelline, Milan.
The Galleria Gruppo Credito Valtellinese – Refettorio delle Stelline tunnel room of 60 meters length, built in the eighteenth century was the setting for this exhibition providing a colorful presentation, made up of objects that make Memphis a cult brand.
Arranged along the longitudinal axis of the tunnel , the objects of the protagonists of the movement parade as ambiguous characters , playful and ironic in an era marked by optimism and open-mindedness narcissism.
Over the years since it’s launch in 1981, Memphis’s colourful furniture has been described as “bizarre”, “misunderstood”, “loathed”, and even as a “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”
However, the pieces are now entrenched into pop culture history, establishing a new relationship with playful shapes and colors : furniture that denies its’ functional nature but communicate at a different level with those who observe them and use them
The exhibition opens with an optical and sensorial tribute to the “evanescent decade”, with laser-graphic tossed in the Gallery sky, surprise visit of the protagonists and a special sound effect carpet.
About Memphis Deign Movement
An anti-design movement energized Italian design throughout the 1960s and ’70s.
After decades of modernist doctrine, Sottsass and his collaborators longed to be liberated from the tyranny of smart, but soulless ‘Good Taste’ in design.
Radical design groups such as Archizoom, Superstudio, and Studio Alchimia, were established in opposition to the pure functionalism of the International Style.
Their solution was to continue the experiments with unconventional materials, historic forms, kitsch motifs and gaudy colours begun by Studio Alchimia, which Sottsass and De Lucchi had belonged to
In 1981, Ettore Sottsass formed a loosely organized group to pursue an ironic approach to design in which surface decoration was paramount.
Memphis annually introduced new furniture, lighting, textiles, ceramics, and glass objects in Milan from 1981 through the late 1980s. In its most exuberant phase, it was a provocative call for diversity and plurality in the arts, and in society as a whole.
Diving off the anarchy of punk rock and early new wave, artists and designers made postmodernist design an expression of the era’s flamboyance and decadence, with a generous shot of rebellion: Vivienne Westwood’s ironic take on S&M and bondage, Ron Arad’s Concrete Stereo (1983), and the Memphis group’s wildly bizarre furniture and accessories.
The packed opening party, cool graphics and hip young designers from different countries – proved irresistible to the mass media. Exuberant, glittery and unashamedly kitsch, Memphis was everything that modernism wasn’t.
Studio Alchimia had done it all before, but only the design cognoscenti knew about it. 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
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
Postmodernism, quite simply, was image-friendly and always cover-ready, an enduring example of how design practice can be both provocative and challenging.
“Memphis,” said Sottsass, “exists in a gelatinous, rarefied area whose very nature precludes set models and definitions.”
About Ettore Sottssas
The key protaginist for the Memphis Movement was Ettore Sottssas ( 14th September 1917 – 31st December 2007 )
The son of an architect, he was born in Innsbruck in 1917.
Ettore was influenced by his father, an architect obsessed with functionalism, functionalism, functionalism”
His parents moved to Turin in 1929 because it boasted the best architecture faculty in Italy and Ettore Sr. wanted his son to study there.
He followed in his father’s footsteps and earned an architecture degree, at the Politecnico di Torino in 1939 and at the same time followed his love for art and painting.
The past to him was the rationalist doctrine of his father, Ettore Sottsass Sr., a prominent Italian architect. Fond though he was of his parents, Ettore Jr. favoured a different approach.
“When I was young, all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism,” he once said. “It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.”
Ettore Sottsass devoted his life and work to dismantling the past in his various roles as artist, architect, industrial designer, glass maker, publisher, theoretician and ceramicist.
No sooner had he graduated than he was called up into the Italian army only to spend most of World War II in a Yugoslavian concentration camp.
“There was nothing courageous or enjoyable about the ridiculous war I fought in,” Sottsass wrote. “I learned nothing from it. It was a complete waste of time.”
After serving with the Italian army in WWII he established a studio in Milan in 1947, where he designed furniture and interiors for mass housing projects with his father before moving to Milan in 1946 to curate a craft exhibition at the Triennale.
For the next decade, Sottsass continued to curate as well as pursuing his passion for painting, writing for Domus, the art and architectural magazine, designing stage sets and founding a practice as an architect and industrial designer
His particular talent was moving dexterously between extravagant and even absurd design to logical architecture and cool industrial styling
He never let himself be pinned down to working as an industrial designer, but he has also never given up being an industrial designer.
He was already creating things that are objects of use, but are also objects for contemplation
In 1956, Sottsass and his first wife, Fernanda Pivano, travelled to New York. “It really did look like (Fritz Lang’s 1926 film) Metropolis: everybody rushing around, noone caring a hoot,” he recalled. “It was incredible, in fact, I changed inside out.”
He was commissioned to create a line of ceramics during this visit, but was also inspired to concentrate on industrial design, rather than architecture, after spending a month working in the studio of the US designer, George Nelson.
Back in Italy, Sottsass agreed to become a creative consultant to Polotronova, a furniture factory near Florence.
In 1958 he accepted a more demanding consultancy role for the newly created electronics division of Olivetti, the Italian industrial group.
Sottsass was hired by Adriano Olivetti, the founder, to work alongside his son, Roberto. Together with the engineer, Mario Tchou, they created a series of landmark products which were technically innovative and aesthetically appealing thanks to Sottsass’ love of pop art and Beat culture.
In 1965 he designed pop-influenced “totem” ceramics and the first “superbox” closets coated in stripey plastic laminate. Sottsass describes them as “crazy things
They won the prestigious 1959 Compasso d’Oro with the Elea 9003, the first Italian calculator, and revolutionised typewriter design with Olivetti’s first electronic model, the Tekne, in an elegantly angular Sottsass case.
Throughout the 1960s, Sottsass travelled in the US and India while remaining a central figure in the Italian avant garde and designing more landmark products for Olivetti culminating in the bright red, poppy plastic 1970 Valentine typewriter which he described as “a biro among typewriters”.
Although Sottsass later dismissed the Valentine as “too obvious, a bit like a girl wearing a very short skirt and too much make-up, it is still seen as an iconic ‘pop’ product.
His furniture was equally influential: notably the mid-1960s “superbox” closets in stripey plastic laminate developed for Polotronova.
In 1972, Sottsass’ mobile, multi-functional fibreglass furniture unit was the toast of the Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibition at MoMA, New York.
In 1973 Sottssas founds Global Tools design school with Archizoom and Superstudio
By the late 1970s, Sottsass was working with Studio Alchimia, a group of avant garde furniture designers including Alessandro Mendini and Andrea Branzi, on an exhibition at the 1978 Milan Furniture Fair.
Two years later, Sottsass, then in his 60s, split with Mendini to form a new collective, Memphis, with Branzi and other 20-something collaborators including Michele De Lucchi, George Sowden, Matteo Thun and Nathalie du Pasquier.
In the panorama of Italian Design and Architecture Ettore Sottsass is an eclectic and multifaceted designer, not only one of the most important names of the most innovative international design research, but also a main protagonist of the culture of the Twentieth Century.
At the end of the seventies Alchimia founded by Alexander Guerrero as a graphic design studio becomes the point from which converged and research projects of the Post-Radical Milan, headed by Alessandro Mendini (Milan, 1931), Ettore Sottsass and Andrea Branzi (Florence, 1938).
An annual collection of decorative objects and Studio Alchimia as a gallery to display it : this , in a nutshell , the idea on which they work with Guerrero, Sottsass , Mendini , Branzi, together with the UFO group with Lapo Binazzi (Florence, 1943), Franco Raggi , De Lucchi, Paola Navone.
The initiative is the first concrete collections ” BauHaus 1″, 1979 and “BauHaus 2”, 1980.
Irreverent are not in the title, are the first exhibition of the New Design ; inspired by popular culture , trivial and intellectualism in their taste fifties style , the pieces are prototypes that want to escape the normal sales channels and act as art objects.
This elitism which eschews the production in series determines the splitting of some components .
In 1981 Memphis presented their first collection, being more market-oriented and ready to be replicated.
Public success on large scale did not really come until Memphis.
He was 65, at the time he formed the Memphis Group in 1981
In the autumn of 1980 Post Modernist designer Sottsass parted company with Studio Alchimia, then shortly afterwards laid the foundation-stone for a new initiative: the Memphis Design Association.
On the 11th Dec 1980 Michele de Lucchi, Barbara Radice, Marco Zannini, Aldo Cibic, Matteo Thun, Martine Bedin, were discussing the project’s concept at Sottsass’ home while listening to the Bob Dylan track “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” that appears on Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, which was played by Sosstass throughout their meeting
Memphis was historically the ancient Egyptian capital of culture and the birthplace of ‘Elvis Presley’.
Sottsass said: ‘let’s call it Memphis‘.
The group decided that they would meet again in February 1981.
On the 9th Feb 1981 the group presented to each other approximately 100 of their furniture concept drawings for the Memphis collection.
By that time each member would have had time to generate design proposals. When they did meet the members of the group had produced over a hundred drawings, each bold, colourful.
Other contributing Memphis members soon enlisted eg George Sowden, Nathalie du Pasquier, Alessandro Mendini, Andrea Branzi, Peter Shire, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, Terry Jones, Shiro Kuramata, Javier Mariscal, Paola Navone, Studio Alchimia, Masanori Umeda, Michael Graves.
They drew inspiration from such movements as Art Deco and Pop Art, styles such as the 1950’s Kitsch and futuristic themes.
Their concepts were in stark contrast to so called ‘Good Design’.
The group approached furniture and ceramic companies commissioning them to batch produce their design concepts.
On the 18th of September 1981 the group showed its work for the first time at the Arc ’74 showroom in Milan. It was an enormous success, 2500 visitors attended the opening.
Memphis was officially launched with a collection of 40 pieces of furniture, ceramics, lighting, glass and textiles created by internationally famous architects and designers, which would become classic examples of the post-modern design movement
The initiative was defined and directed solely by designers themselves. the Memphis première was International in character, involving architects from Italy, France, Great Britain, Austria, Japan and the USA.
The designs featured fluorescent colors, slick surfaces, intentionally lop-sided and asymmetrical shapes and squiggly laminate patterns.
After decades of modernist hegemony led by supporters of the “Less is more” as Van der Rohe and Gropius, Sottsass and his collaborators aspire to be freed from the tyranny of “good taste.”
They generally all disagreed with the conformist approach at the time and challenged the idea that products had to follow conventional shapes, colours, textures and pattern
In fact, by the use of poor materials, unconventional shapes, patterns gaudy kitsch, the Memphis group created as many nods to the exuberance of the consumer society
Sottsass would say ……….. “Memphis is not new, Memphis is everywhere.”
Memphis 1981 Launch Catalogue
The designers, including Sottsass, Alessandro Mendini, Michael Graves, Georges Snowden, Matteo Thun and Nathalie Du Pasquier, debuted a range of pieces designed to communicate ideas rather than being based on forms at the 1981 Salone del Mobile in Milan.
Even though very few of the things were actually in production, it was a big mass-media event.
These products included Sottsass’ unconventional Carlton bookcase, which featured colourful angled shelves and bookends, disconnected from one another. It aimed to question why a bookcase needed to look like a typical bookcase.
This notion fell under the Postmodern cultural style – a reaction to the functional aesthetic of the Modernism movement prevalent in the years before – and resulted in a series of pieces created from geometric shapes in bright colours.
In no time, it redefined the way we relate to the space we live in, revolutionizing the rules of Design.
Hence, the Memphis movement has become the almost mythical symbol of “New Design”.
In the same year the group published the book ‘Memphis, The New International Style.
The book served to advertise the groups work.
Memphis directed by maestro Ettore Sottsass, brought together many emerging young designers such as Alberto Albrici, Johanna Grawunder , Pierre Charpin , Denis Santachiara , Nathalie Du Pasquier , George J. Sowden , Nanda Vigo, Alessandro Mendini , Markus Benesch , Alberto Biagetti , Ron Arad, Richard Woods. Javier Marical, Shiro Kuramata, Paola Navone, Masanori Umeda, Peter Shire and others
Many of the pieces featured in the exhibition were coated in brightly, colourful laminates.
Laminates are most commonly used to protect kitchen furniture and surfaces from staining as a result of spillage.
The group specifically chose this material because of its obvious ”lack of culture”.
Memphis’ design, with Ettore Sottsass and Barbara Radice as the backbone of the group, promoted a new freedom of expression through the utilisation of new shapes, materials and patterns.
GQ Magazine – Feature on Memphis, 1982
Memphis refers directly to the emerging communications society and represents the view that an object is only contemporary if it functions as a medium, that, like other media, also transports a message.
The practical quality of the object is thus less decisive than its meaning as a medium of expression.
In this sense, Memphis used naive, abstract shapes and a surface design composed of colorful and patterns laminates to provoke the onlooker.
They take the stage as products of a media world which kitsch and art blend, and are an expression of the apolitical agenda of “anything goes”
1984 New York Times
Memphis was a reaction against the slick, black humorless design of the 1970’s.
It was a time of minimalism with such products as typewriters, buildings, cameras, cars and furniture all seeming to lack personality and individualism.
In contrast the Memphis Group offered bright, colourful, shocking pieces. The colours they used contrasted the dark blacks and browns of European furniture.
It may look dated today but at the time it looked remarkable. The word tasteful is not normally associated with products generated by the Memphis Group but they were certainly ground breaking at the time.
All this would seem to suggest that the Memphis Group was very superficial but that was far from the truth.
Their main aim was to reinvigorate the Radical Design movement. The group intended to develop a new creative approach to design
It was the beginning of a new era, Form did not have to follow function any more, and design was about communication.
Perfectly in tune with pop culture and flamboyant post-punk 80s, the Memphis group gradually acquires its legitimacy against the obscurantism of post-modernist then so influential in art and architecture.
It plays fashions of the time, and so the only freedman design community to mingle with trendy worlds of graphic design and fashion.
Magazines quickly seized the phenomenon and galleries to sell colorful furniture.
Exhibitions in London, Los Angeles, Tokyo, San Francisco, New York and Milan are the only organized 1984.
The work of the Memphis Group has been described as vibrant, eccentric and ornamental. It was conceived by the group to be a ‘fad’, which like all fashions would very quickly come to an end.
All hype yet tired old Sottsass, increasingly disappointed by the turn of things.
“Considered a symbol and persecuted as a rock star, far from feeling satisfied, Sottsass has one of the worst crises of his life,” writes Barbara Radice, Sottsass wife and member of the Memphis group.
In 1985, he announced as he leaves the collective.
Shortly after leaving the Memphis Group, Sottsass described the group’s characteristic style. “Memphis is like a very strong drug. You cannot take too much. I don’t think anyone should put only Memphis around: It’s like eating only cake.”
In 1988 Sottsass dismantled the group.
“Memphis was a catastrophe, it wasn’t successful at all,” says Italian designer and Memphis co-founder Michele de Lucchi. “It was very influential and the Memphis idea was very famous but in terms of commercial success…zero.”
The group may no longer exist but it has certainly influenced graphic design, restaurant design, fabrics and furnishing.
Memphis was one of the most influential design movements of the late 20th century and the products that came out of its existence was all the rage for a few years in the 1980s
Nowadays the remains of those few years in the early 1980s are collectors’ pieces and precious museum objects.
The rise of the trend has followed a number of exhibitions and articles about Postmodernism and design in the 1980s, following Sottsass’ death in 2007.
Memphis’s true legacy may be the unintentional mandate it helped establish.
Neo-modernist work, and really most of the work that cascades down news feeds, is not edgy or even necessarily good design, but it proliferates because it looks attractive in photographs.
With all strictures absolved completely, the parameters for assessment are rarely how a design fits within an agenda or how it actually performs, but how photogenic it is.
Much of the work today that attempts to be revolutionary never leaves the two-dimensional world of the screen and its superficial rendered reality.
The design exists to be nothing more than an image to be liked, pinned, posted and shared on social media.
Though Sottsass may have had entirely different intentions, the wake of Memphis and its rapid media success helped transform design culture into image culture, where the only rule that remains is that it has to look good in a photograph.
The glorious past of the Radical Design Collaboration is today represented by Design Post, the company that now produces the Memphis collections.
About Gallery Gruppo Credito Valtellinese
The Palazzo della Stelline in Milan is one of the most deeply connected to the history of the city.
From the eighteenth century . the building housed the girls’ orphanage and retained that function until the 1970 when it became the property of the City , suffered a first partial recovery action which was followed in 1983 by the complete restoration of the Credito Valtellinese Group.
Around three cloisters of the Palace are located also important international institutions : the Institute for Foreign Trade , the European Union , the Stelline Foundation, the Centre Culturel Français , the Foundation Mattei and Credito Artigiano.
The Galleria Gruppo Credito Valtellinese – Refettorio delle Stelline located in the eighteenth century Refectory, 500 square meters exhibition space, hall opened in 1987 with an unforgettable event guest – Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was invited by Alexandre Iolas to contend with one of the greatest masters of all ages Leonardo da Vinci.
A resounding success, the last for the talented New York artist (he died a few months later) which for the Galleria Gruppo Credito Valtellinese – Refettorio delle Stelline, was the beginning of a presence that was to consolidate and develop over time .