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23 February 2023

Memphis Group. Only color and a sense of humor will save us.

If to rebel, then with vigor. To arouse emotions and move to discussion. The 1980s had no better manifestation than the aesthetics of a group of designers spontaneously crated in Milan. They were united by their love of color and their aversion to the seriousness of modernism and so-called good taste. And fun that gave them a thrilling lightness.

The creators of postmodernism in design were already looking for new means of expression. Ettore Sottsass and Michaele De Lucchi were active in Studio Alchimia, driven by Alessandro Mendini. They experimented by studying the influence of art, literature and film on industrial design. Their efforts resulted in conceptual works that implemented the demands of iconoclastic “banal design.”

In one evening

However, the experienced Ettore Sottsass wanted to go further and create products that could be bought. On a December evening in 1980, he invited a group of young designers and architects to talk about the need to refresh and revitalize design. In protest to an overly serious modernism and its proposed rationalist combination of form and function. W tle słychać było piosenkę Boda Dylana „Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. Thus was born the Memphis group. The name referred not only to the city in Tennessee where Areta Franklin and Elvis Presley came from, but also to the ancient capital of Egypt. The name referred not only to the city in Tennessee where Areta Franklin and Elvis Presley came from, but also to the ancient capital of Egypt.

Designs for furniture, lamps and dishes were created at an express pace. Their authors did not limit themselves to any rules, what’s more, they enjoyed breaking them. The first exhibition organized in the Arc’74 showroom during the Salone del Mobile in September 1981 met with an enthusiastic reception. The crowd gathered in front of the gallery blocked the street.

An explosion of colors and a dance of shapes

The designers stirred emotions, because instead of purely utilitarian forms, the audience saw structures resembling geometric sculptures, serving as shelves, tables, sofas or dishes. Incredible combinations of colors and flashy patterns ironically imitating the classic ones. It turned out that there can be such vigor and optimism in everyday objects! Nobody remained indifferent. Dazzled lovers were met by skeptical critics using the biting term “fruit salad”.

The creators of the Memphis group had a great time reaching for the motifs of pop art, futurism and even kitsch, but they also drew on the decorative achievements of earlier periods, including Art Déco. in the spirit of postmodernism, they quoted and mixed orders, but retained a specific elegance that ensured them a place in salons. They consciously reached for new materials. They commonly used laminates and persuaded their manufacturer to apply patterns on them. Next to the Carlton and Casablanca shelves by Ettore Sottsass, they have become the most recognizable achievements of the Memphis group.

A contemporary term from the fashion world – clash print – best reflects the ability to combine many patterns next to each other. Each of them pulsed with colors, had the clarity of a comic book, and for the neighborhood they got colorful leopard spots, painted marble, wood grains and geometric black and white stripes. The master of fabric design in this team was Nathalie Du Pasquier. However, the most popular pattern, the famous Squiggle, also called “Bacterio” – was designed by Ettore Sottsass from small, irregular, winding lines and he willingly used it in many of his furniture.

The power of publicity

More designers from many countries joined the initial group of founders. Ernesto Gismondi, president of Artemide, took over the management, giving them space in the showroom on Corso Europa in Milan. The catalog with the complete works, similarly to the book Memphis, The New International Style, widely promoted the group’s achievements. Every year, during the largest furniture fair, new objects were shown. As an art director, Barbara Radice organized exhibitions in many cities in Europe and the United States. Whether it was the height of popularity that was a major drag or other reasons that made Ettore Sottsass leave the group, in 1988 Memphis disbanded.

The fame of the most subversive design concept that gave postmodernism an international character seemed to be waning. The production of previously created designs has not been discontinued, but no new ones have been created under the Mempis Milano brand. Despite this, they did not let themselves be forgotten. Fashion brands were the first to reach for the group’s achievements and incorporate references to its motifs into their collections. On the wave of renewed interest in the architecture and design of postmodernism, the aesthetics of the Memphis group arouses great emotions again. Collective exhibitions at the Vitra Design Museum (“Memphis: 40 Years of Kitsch and Elegance”, 2021) or at the Milan Triennale (“Memphis Again”, 2022) respond to this demand. More fashionable places dress in this style. Again, the Memphis aesthetic moves audiences to either love or dislike.

The second youth of furniture, lamps and decorative objects of the Memphis group is in full swing. The next generation is immersed in the aesthetics of the eighties with all their exaggeration and subversive approach to tradition. It is no coincidence that in times of unrest and re-evaluation of the order, the achievements of postmodernism are again appreciated. The Italian collective was his particular emanation.

Author: Agnieszka Gruszczyńska-Hyc