Memphis Group

2 Dec
Ettore Sottsass    
     
Memphis Group

The Memphis Group is an Italian post-modernist design and architecture movement, born at the beginning of the 1980s.The group (named after Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again“, the soundtrack of their first meeting) was led by Ettore Sottsass, a major italian designer, and manned by a bunch of younger architects.

Memphis shocked the design world by making experiments with unconventional materials (such as plastic laminates), eccentric ornaments (pop motifs, kitsch themes, geometric patterns) and the flashy colours characteristic of the 1980s. The cover of The Cure album “Boys don’t cry” is a good testimony of Memphis consonance with the zeitgeist.

The most important of all Memphis tenets is the rejection of the idea that good design has to last. Sottsass said “Today everything one does is consumed. Memphis is dedicated to life, not to eternity”. See Memphis complete collection.

Founders

The group was founded by Ettore Sottsass led on 16 December 1980, and resolved to meet again with their designs in February 1981. The result was a highly-acclaimed debut at the 1981 Salone del Mobile of Milan, the world’s most prestigious furniture NEWY fair. The group, which eventually counted among its members Martine Bedin, Andrea Branzi, Aldo Cibic, Michele de Lucchi, Nathalie du Pasquier, Michael Graves, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, Shiro Kuromata, Matteo Thun, Javier Mariscal, George Sowden, Marco Zanini, and the journalist Barbara Radice[1], disbanded in 1988.

Origins

Named after the Bob Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, the movement was a reaction against the post-Bauhaus “black box” designs of the 1970s and had a sense of humour that was lacking at the time in design.

Ettore Sottsass, called Memphis design the “New International Style”.

In contrast the Memphis Group offered bright, colourful, shocking pieces. The colours they used contrasted the dark blacks and browns of European furniture. 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. The group intended to develop a new creative approach to design.

On 11 December 1980 Ettore Sottsass organised a meeting with other such famous designers. They decided to form a design collaborative. It would be named Memphis after the Bob Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. Coincidentally the song had been played repeatedly throughout the evening.

They drew inspiration from such movements as Art Deco and Pop Art, styles such as the 1950s Kitsch and futuristic themes. Their concepts were in stark contrast to so called ‘Good Design’.

Memphis was the collective name of a group of architects and designers who were working in Milan – among them George Sowden, Michele de Lucchi, Marco Zanini, Aldo Cibic, Matheo Thun, Nathalie du Pasquier and Martine Bedin, who were strongly influenced by the radical work of their ‘mentor’, the older architect and designer, Ettore Sottsass (b. 1917), who had worked for Olivetti through the 1960s as well as experimenting on his own designs from the 1950s through to the 1970s. The group produced and exhibited, annually between1981 to 1988, collections of radical one-off designs – furniture and decorative art objects for the most part – which, with their unconventional shapes, brightly-coloured and patterned surfaces and apparent disregard for function, shocked the international design establishment and caused a widespread re-think about the rational, all-black, industry-oriented conventions of the ‘modern’ design of the day and the emergence of a new movement, often referred to as ‘Post-Modernism’.

Theoretical concepts

Prepared to mix 20th century styles, colours and materials, it positioned itself as a fashion rather than an academic movement, and hoped to erase the International Style where Postmodernism had failed, preferring an outright revival and continuation of Modernism proper rather than a re-reading of it.

The Memphis group was comprised of Italian designers and architects who created a series of highly influential products in 1981. They disagreed with the approach of the time and challenged the idea that products had to follow conventional shapes, colours, textures and patterns.

End

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. In 1988 Sottsass dismantled the group.

 
The Memphis Group

The Memphis group comprised of Italian designers and architects who created a series of highly influential products in the 1980’s. They disagreed with the conformist approach at the time and challenged the idea that products had to follow conventional shapes, colours, textures and patterns.

The Memphis group was founded in 1981. One of the leading members of the group Ettore Sottsass called Memphis design the ‘New International Style’.

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.

On the 11th of December 1980 Scottsass organised a meeting with other such famous designers. They decided to form a design collaborative. It would be named Memphis after the Bob Dylan song ”Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. Coincidentally the song had been played repeatedly throughout the evening.

Memphis was historically the ancient Egyptian capital of culture and the birthplace of ‘Elvis Presley’. This was quite ironic but so were most of the pieces created by the group.

The image below is of the ‘Super lamp’ created by Martine Bedine. It is made of metal, which has been painted and lacquered.

The group decided that they would meet again in February 1981. By that time each member would have had time to generate design proposals. When they did meet themembers of the group had produced over a hundred drawings, each bold, colourful.

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. The show exhibited clocks, lighting, furniture and ceramics created by internationally famous architects and designers.

The image below shows the ‘Carlton bookcase’ for Memphis designed by Ettore Sottsass.

In the same year the group published the book ‘Memphis, The New International Style. The book served to advertise the groups work.

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”.

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. In 1988 Sottsass dismantled the group.

The group may no longer exist but it has certainly influenced graphic design, restaurant design, fabrics and furnishing.

Thanks to http://www.design-technology.org/memphis1.htm
Love it or loathe it?
The Memphis group changed the face of modern design. But was it for the better, asks Jonathan Glancey

Jonathan Glancey
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 6 September 2001 02.03 BST

For young designers at the beginning of the 1980s, Memphis was a revelation. Now in their 40s, these same designers speak of this wilfully provocative and short-lived design group with a mixture of reverence and repulsion. Founded by the Milanese designer and architect Ettore Sottsass, it incited designers of everyday objects – from office chairs to buildings via wallpaper and vases – to break away from clean-cut mainstream modern European design. Nathalie du Pasquier, one of the Memphis team, describes it as “a way of life, of transferring into the world of the western home the culture of rock music, travel and a certain excess”.

However ephemeral, Memphis certainly had an effect. Introduced to the world at the 1981 Milan Furniture Fair, where it stole the show, Memphis was the major influence on Philippe Starck, today the world’s best known and most imitated designer. Those wacky hotel lobbies for Ian Schrager in Miami, New York and Hong Kong, and that best-selling lemon-squeezer, have more than a bit of Memphis about them.

Yet if you visit the new Memphis show at the Design Museum in London, you may be disappointed by what you see. Lots of brightly coloured, neo-1950s plastic laminates covering everything from crazy sideboards to bonkers beds. Was this gimcrack stuff really so influential? Had the brown-and-orange 1970s been so boring that product design had to descend into these cartoon capers?

Many designers, though, still talk of Memphis in the way that rock musicians of the same age speak of the Clash and Blondie. Jasper Morrison, a cool minimalist and one of Britain’s most respected product designers, was at Kingston Polytechnic at the time. He went to the first Memphis show in 1981. “It was the weirdest feeling – you were in one sense repulsed by the objects, but also freed by this sort of total rule-breaking. I came back to college and immediately did my one and only Memphis piece, which hopefully has now disappeared forever.”

Colin Burn was studying industrial design: “It rocked my world. Seeing the Memphis work had the same effect on my perception of design that listening to the Ramones a few years earlier had on my thinking about music. But it looks dated now and it’s remarkably hard to remember how shocking it all was back then.”

Far more enthusiastic are collectors such as Karl Lagerfeld, the Paris-based fashion designer. “It was love at first sight. I’d just got an apartment in Monte Carlo and I could only imagine it in Memphis. Now it seems very 1980s, but the mood will come back. The pretensions of minimalism made it difficult for Memphis in the 1990s, but I think Sottsass is one of the design geniuses of the 20th century.”

On the face of it, Memphis’s philosophy was more than a little airy. “Memphis,” said Sottsass, “exists in a gelatinous, rarefied area whose very nature precludes set models and definitions.” On a more substantial level, it was a pent-up reaction against the slick “black box” design favoured by makers of nearly everything in late-1970s Europe, from typewriters and cameras to office furniture, cars and buildings themselves.

This was the era of the shiny, black glass office block – which, in the hands of most architects, was ineffably banal. In the US, it was also the heyday of postmodern architecture and design. Philip Johnson, Michael Graves, Robert Stern, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown were strutting the architectural catwalk with slapstick-style buildings that were a big and blowsy two-fingers up to the stern values of the Bauhaus and what Johnson had labelled the International Style when he was modernism’s most ardent American advocate in the early 1930s.

Sottsass called Memphis design the New International Style and plunged the sophisticated and influential Milan design world into a labyrinth of visual irony, puns and provocations. In effect, he was injecting a dose of postmodernism into mainstream European design. This was design as cultural criticism, rather than as a functional tool or statement of modernist intent.

Sottsass himself is a complex figure. The son of an architect, he was born in Innsbruck in 1917. The family later moved to Turin, where Ettore graduated from the polytechnic in 1939, in time to serve with the Italian army. After the war, he designed furniture and interiors for mass housing projects. His particular talent was moving dexterously between extravagant and even absurd design to logical architecture and cool industrial styling.

Perhaps this is what growing up in Turin did for him. The city is home to some of the most adventurous of all baroque and modern architecture. Think of the eye-boggling Chapel of the Holy Shroud by Guarino Guarini, and of Fiat, the car giant with its ultra-modern factory with a race-track on its roof. Here, sensuous architecture and rational product design have long been combined in an inspirational mix.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Sottsass travelled to the US and India and became influenced by both Pop and tantric art. What could product design and architecture learn from these? Humour, sensuousness and multi-layered meanings, perhaps.

For an older generation of designers, although not as old as Sottsass himself, the Memphis movement seemed plain silly. Terence Conran, 69, although a friend, thought it “funny, peculiar and rather like the emperor’s new clothes. It was not to be taken seriously.”

Has Memphis design influenced Conran in any way? “No.”

Memphis could at least be relied upon to get a reaction. James Irvine, another industrial design graduate from Kingston, went to work with Sottsass in 1984. “I worked closely with Ettore for 13 years, at Olivetti until 1992 and as his partner until 1997. I always worked with him as an industrial designer and I think, luckily for me, Memphis wasn’t part of the discussion. Looking back now, the influence on me was to avoid it. It was already over and, as such, was to be steered clear of.”

Paola Antonelli, a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, thought Memphis was “atrocious” when studying in Milan in 1981. “With few exceptions – Sottsass’s Carlton sideboard being one and Shiro Kuramata’s pieces another – I still find the original Memphis collection very hard to swallow. It wasn’t the first postmodern reaction to the status quo, but it certainly has been the first – and maybe the only one – to have an influence in the wider world. It was about turning the design world upside down just for the time of a few collections, yet the recipe was very easy to follow. Hence the innumerable bad copies we’ve seen all over the world.”

There is, it must be said, a fine line to be drawn between Memphis and the sort of stuff you create with an MFI flatpack and rolls of coloured plastic. After gawping at yet another cabinet made from MDF and covered in Sottsass’s comic-book Bacterio plastic laminate, it was hard not to sigh for the strictures and certainties of the Bauhaus.

The whole point of Memphis was to demonstrate that design could mutate like bacteria, that it was as open to change as Pop art. And yet Sottsass continued to design sophisticated electronic computer kit for Olivetti, the Italian corporation that had given him his first big break as a designer in 1958. He later began to concentrate on architecture.

Whatever Memphis was intended to achieve, it was ultimately a safety valve for designers who were bored styling yet another tasteful office chair, chic desking system or banal computer terminal.

Memphis, though, is also a reminder that all design movements need to be questioned to keep them at the edge. The great design project of the 20th century, modernism, was clearly in need of a kick by the 1980s. This is what American postmodernism also tried to do, but it had all the cultural sophistication of Beavis and Butthead. Memphis was at least a clever clown.

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