The return of Memphis: how the 80 s design staple detected a new audience

5 months, 5 days ago

Once derided, the design style that specialized in squiggles and DayGlo colorings is the subject of a new series of exhibitions shedding light on a loved, loathed and often misunderstood movement

The Memphis Groups design style is unmistakable. The output of the short-lived, divisive design collective, which debuted at the Milan furniture fair in 1981 and shut shop six years later, personified the garish appeal of the decade that style forgot. Their furniture was colorful, kitschy and overstated. They stacked slanted rows of cheap plastic laminates and called it a bookshelf. The group led by founder Ettore Sottsass decided that geometric shapes attained great table legs, and that black-and-white stripes altogether worked with lemon-yellow circles.

Over the course of the 80 s, the signature clash of busy patterns and synthetic materials imbued every aspect of popular culture. From a young Karl Lagerfelds chic Monaco apartment to pale imitations in the form of screen-printed Esprit sweatshirts and MTV graphics Memphis was unavoidable. Back to the Future IIs vision of the millennium development goals was directly influenced by the group and their designs served as the inspiration for the Max diner from Saved By the Bell.

The Met Breuers new exhibition Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical cuts through the glare of 80 s DayGlo to focus on Memphis, the philosophy. It charts the movements origins through its founders 60 -year career, presenting Memphis not as a passing fad, but the culmination of one mans decades-long mission of creating a more spiritual approach to design. The Memphis Groups main goal was to create objects that appealed to you on an emotional level, says the Met Breuer curator Christian Larsen.

The cast of Saved by the Bell at the Max diner. Photograph: NBC/ NBC via Getty Images

Sottsass came of age in Italy during its postwar reconstruction, a period fertile for culture reinvention and rethinking of the human condition. In 1956, he worked briefly in New York under George Nelson, the poster child for modernisms slick rejection of decorative traditions in favor of rational, industrialized design. While in America, Sottsass was impressed by the technology of scale of mass production and its ability to provide for the entire population but he was also appalled by the sameness of suburbia. He was blown away by mass production, says Larsen. It was very democratic in a sense, but he found this culture of cookie-cutter suburban houses a bit too homogenous, and in the end, alienating.

In 1961, he traveled to India and got his worldview realigned( two years before his friend Allen Ginsberg and seven before the Beatles ). Theres a clear line to be drawn between Memphis pattern and the architecture of southern India, but it was the peoples wholly different posture towards material possessions that constructed the greatest impact on his work. People lived with objects not because of inherent monetary value or advanced technology, but because they represented something spiritual and ritualized, says Larsen. He starts to shift the conversation from production to the consumer, and what an object can bring to your life.

It wasnt until the 80 s that Sottsasss postmodern vision finally penetrated popular culture. In 1981, having recently parted styles with another radical Italian design group, Studio Alchimia, which was founded by his friend and rival Alessandro Mendini, Sottsass brought together a group of young designers whose international roster included future hotshots, among them Michele de Lucchi, Shiro Kuramata, Hans Hollein, and Michael Graves.( According to legend, he named the collective Memphis after a Bob Dylan song that had been skipping on the record player .)

Karl Lagerfeld with his Memphis designs Photograph: Jacques Schumacher

His new troupe had a rockstar sensibility about it, and shocked the design world when Memphis premiered its first collecting of clocks, lamps, tables and TVs at Milans annual furniture fair, Salone del Mobile. An effervescent, seductive and undeniably sympathetic group, it appalled some and amused others but set everyone attending the fair in a state of high excitement, the New York Times reported. Approaching the crowds that assembled outside the fair and queued to see the collectives work, Sottsass reportedly thought that a bomb had gone off.

For a freshly prosperous society primed to embrace high and low esthetics, garishness, synthetics and the melodrama of Miami Vice, Sottsass had finally detected the right audience. People were hungry for colouring again, says Marc Benda of Friedman Benda, a Manhattan gallery thats proven Sottsasss work since 2003. The party was short-lived. While Memphis triumphed culturally, its high prices and impractical forms failed commercially. Compared to the event itself, Memphis marketings were negligible, decorator Marco Zanini recalled in 1989. The simplest thing was to walk out and close it down. Sottsass left the group in 1985, and it officially disbanded in 1988. Karl Lagerfeld sold his collection at Sothebys in 1991, but despite some high profile fans such as Sofia Coppola, by the late 90 s Memphiss afterglow had faded.

Sottsass, however, had continued success. Before his death in 2007, his design consultancy, Sottsass Associati, completed a number of colorfully postmodernist architectural projects. He detested the idea of being recollected for Memphis. Memphis is a phenomenon that arose out of cultural and political necessities that are no longer, he said. There are moments when something happens, and then its over. Basta. But the groups impact is still felt today.

Peter Shire: Naked Is the Best Disguise at MOCA Pacific Design Center earlier this year Photograph: Zak Kelley/ MoCA

For the generations afterward, Sottsass attained it possible for young decorators to understand what emotional approach makes iconic design, according to Job Smeets, founder of the irreverent Antwerp-based Studio Job, whose work is included in the Met Breuer show as an illustration of Sottsasss legacy.

Memphis has regained its footing as a culture force in the last ten years, resurfacing as the apparent inspiration for a 2011 Christian Dior runway collection and a apparently endless supply of hip throw pillows, crop tops, and uncomfortable-looking chairs. In 2014, the former Memphis member Nathalie Du Pasquier was tapped to design an American Apparel collecting and this year her work inspired a furniture collecting for the US manufacturer West Elm. Alessandro Mendini, who contributed to the first Memphis show, designed a set of skateboards for the streetwear brand Supreme in 2016. Last November, Sothebys three-day auction of David Bowies Memphis collection built 1.3 m ($ 1.68 m ), and BMW made a series of cars celebrating the group.

Dedicated Instagram accounts have inhaled new life into Memphis for the committed fans and the curious, while exhibitions, including the Met Breuers and Peter Shires recent present at MoCA, mean Memphis is part of the contemporary conversation once again. I guessed Memphis may have died, says Larsen. It comes back into fashion every so often because it has that spirit of uprising and liberty. Its “ve been meaning to” shriek at you. It celebrates diversity and the unorthodox. But Sottsass said it himself: its just like candy. Too much can build you sick.

Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical is at the Met Breuer, New York, from 21 July to 8 October

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