Memphis was a one-time madly vibrant and creative renegade of the design world. Postmodern in style, it was a collective of young Milan-based designers who were led by the celebrated Austrian-born Italian architect Ettore Sottsass (who was then in his 60s). Debuting in 1981, Memphis would have a huge cultural impact on the first half of the 1980s design scene and beyond.
The Memphis Movement
The origin of the name ‘Memphis’ was perhaps as bizarre and outlandish as the design movement’s outputs. A song by American singer/songwriter Bob Dylan was playing on Ettore Sottsass’s record player. Titled “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, the track stuck repeatedly at “Memphis Blues Again” and Sottsass determined the collective would be called ‘Memphis’.
The ‘Carlton’ room divider was designed in 1981 by Ettore Sottsass. Image via IDA.
An image from the Memphis-Milano Postmodern Design Collection Exhibition that took place at the Dixon Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, between 13 April and 13 July 2014. Image © photographer Dennis Zanone via Design Museum.
With Memphis there was no established formula or modus operandi in regard to design or creativity. Rather, Memphis was about freedom from the perceived tyranny of characterless smart design. The antithesis of ‘good design’ (such as that posited by Dieter Rams), Memphis found expression through unconventional, kitsch and gaudy forms, colors and materials. Moreover, Memphis balked at notions of longevity in design and promulgated a tendency towards consumerism and living for the moment.
An image from the Memphis-Milano Postmodern Design Collection Exhibition that took place at the Dixon Museum in Memphis, Tennessee between 13 April and 13 July 2014. Image © photographer Dennis Zanone via Design Museum.
Memphis was also at its height in the era of the New Romantic and at a time when fashion was undaunted: hairstyles were big, shoulder pads were broad and style was showy. In sync, Memphis was brash, loud and colorful.
Karl Lagerfeld’s Monte Carlo Home
Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld at one time furnished his Monte Carlo apartment with Memphis Group designs. The following images are taken from a 1991 Sotheby’s catalog of Lagerfeld’s Memphis collection.
Karl Lagerfeld Monte Carlo apartment circa 1990.
Ettore Sottsass ‘Beverly’ Cabinet, Memphis 1981.
Masanori Umeda ‘Tawaraya’ Party Ring, Memphis 1981.
Andrea Brandi ‘Beach’ Lounge Chair, Memphis 1983.
Martine Bedin, Michele De Lucci, Ettore Sottsass and Martine Bedin: ‘Splendid’, ‘Grand, ‘King’s’ and ‘Terminus’ lamps, Memphis 1981-83.
Images via Mondo Blogo.
At Odds With Functionalism
Memphis rallied against utilitarian and functional conceptions of design. In a monograph of his work published by Phaidon Press, Ettore Sottsass is quoted as saying: “When I was young, all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism. It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.” (Source: FT.com) Despite its meteoric rise and relatively fleeting existence, Memphis made a big impression. The movement provoked and challenged, questioning design convention and stirring debate and conversation. Unlike other postmodern groupings, Memphis, it would seem, was less concerned with intellectual posturing and navel-gazing. Instead, those involved with the movement delighted in its madcap ebullience.
Pre-Memphis, Ettore Sottsass designed the ‘Mettsass’ table for BD Barcelona Design. The table bears the hallmarks of what would become Sottsass’s Memphis. Image © BD Barcelona Design.
The Panda Cabinet
The Panda Cabinet was designed by Paola Navone, one of the Memphis Group’s original members. Upon finding two of her Memphis designs when moving house, Navone put them to use in her new home. When Giulio Cappellini, Navone’s long-time associate and friend, paid a visit he was immediately inspired, saying: “I’m tired of all this brown, beige, and gray (sic)… [it’s] time to do something new.” (Source: Curbed) Cappellini launched the Panda Cabinet, a series of open cabinets, at the 2015 Salone del Mobile in Milan. Created by Paola Navone, they include original Memphis laminate designs.
Image © Cap Design S.p.A.
Image © Cap Design S.p.A.
Inspired by Memphis
The Memphis Group parted company in 1988, although Sottsass had left at its height in 1985 to focus on his architecture studio. Despite its whimsical nature, Memphis today retains a certain amount of nostalgic appeal for many designers and aficionados. Indeed its allure is such that the movement continues to embolden and influence young designers, particularly when experimenting with shapes, colors and materials. Perhaps akin to Marmite (the infamous spread made with yeast extract), Memphis as a genre is either loved or detested. And in spite of its tendency to scoff at the idea that good design should last, Memphis, the movement, its designs and aspirations, continues to find new followers and collectors.
Arbor Jewellery Stand designed by Zoë Mowat. Image via Dwell.
Shape Up 5-Piece Chandelier by Ladies & Gentlemen Studio. Image © Roll & Hill, LLC.
‘kc rest’ by out for space. Image © 2015 out for space.
‘Hoff’ modular sofa by Morten Jonas. Image © Morten Jonas.
British designer Lee Broom’s Drunken Side Table (centre) and Drunken Table Lamp (rear right). Image © Lee Broom.
Kartell and Ettore Sottsass
Italian design giant Kartell recently paid tribute to Ettore Sottsass by staging an evocative Memphis-style exhibition at its flagship Milan store during the 2015 Salone del Mobile. The exhibit included eight pieces designed around ten years ago by Sottsass for Kartell – six vases and two stools. In addition, three brightly coloured prints, also designed by Sottsass, were applied to Philippe Starck’s Mademoiselle armchair (designed by Starck for Kartell).
“‘Mademoiselle’ armchairs by Philippe Starck among vases designed by Ettore Sottsass.” Image © Adriano Mauri / Designboom via Designboom.
“‘Mademoiselle’ chairs by Philippe Starck upholstered in Memphis fabrics.” Image © Adriano Mauri / Designboom via Designboom.
“‘Lombrico’ vase by Ettore Sottsass.” Image © Adriano Mauri / Designboom via Designboom.
“Ettore Sottsass-designed lamp presented for the first time.” Image © Adriano Mauri / Designboom via Designboom.
- Design Museum. (2015) Memphis. [Online] Available from: http://designmuseum.org/memphis. [Accessed: 7th October 2015].
- Hirst, A. (2015) What’s All the Fuss About Memphis Design? Curbed. [Online] 23rd April. Available from: http://curbed.com. [Accessed: 8th October 2015].
- Krichels, J. (2014) New design styles inspired by the 1980s-era Memphis Group. FT.com. [Online] 12th September. Available from: http://www.ft.com. [Accessed: 7th October 2015].
Further Reading and Images
- Memphis Milano 1981-1987.
- Images from the Memphis-Milano Postmodern Design Collection Exhibition. Thanks to photographer Dennis Zanone.