Memphis Design: The Late Bloomer in the Art/Design Scene

3/2/2020
Image source: creativebloq.com

Memphis Design hasn’t always been popular with the general public. Firstly deemed ridiculous and described as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price” by both media and collectors, Memphis only gained positive recognition years later after its birth. Now in the 21st century, it sees its revival and is ready to take over the art/design scene.

The Beginning

It all started in Milan, December 1980. An Austrian-born Italian designer namely Ettore Sottsass invited a group of designers to his 270-square-foot apartment. Bob Dylan’s Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again was played over and over again during their inaugural meeting, which eventually become the name of this band of designers: Memphis Group. Sitting on the floor while being intoxicated, they looked at each other’s sketches and began applauding every time they looked at someone’s drawings until Sottsass proposed his collaboration idea.

The original Memphis group in Masanori Umeda’s “boxing ring bed” | Image source: yatzer.com

The next time they met, it was in February the following year. They brought over a hundred pictures of their bold, colorful artworks. They didn’t stop at that. Heavily influenced by postmodernism with a little touch of 1920’s Art Deco geometric figures and 1950’s Pop Art colour palette, they continued creating various types of artworks: furniture, fabrics, patterns, ceramics, glass, and metal objects.

First Shows, First Impressions, First Reactions

Later that year, Memphis Group showed their first collection at Salone del Mobile Milan, one of the leading furniture fair. It was done without any introduction nor catalogues. There was a huge traffic jam caused by the crowd gathered to see their 40 pieces of artworks. Unsurprisingly, incoming reaction was not exactly good at first. However, it was expected to happen since Memphis Design is the radical antithesis of the mid-century modernism and 1970s minimalism which were still mainstream during the 80’s. Everything was all about structure and straight lines, so it is not shocking to see that Memphis which features bold, colourful objects with unusual shapes was seen as “bizarre”, “outrageous”, and “loathed”.

The iconic Sottsass’ Carlton bookcase (1981) | Image source: metmuseum.org

The same thing happened in October 1982 when the group had its first US show in Chelsea. Thousands were flocking around the loft where the opening took place, but only a few made purchases. It was not commercially successful, but it was still a breakthrough—a very brave one.

Second Chance, Widespread Popularity

While not exactly popular among the general public, Memphis Design managed to attract a cult following for its striking style. Karl Lagerfeld and David Bowie were among those who fancied the colourful geometric style. The late Chanel creative director was known for having the complete pieces of Memphis’ early collections in his Monaco home, while the musician made headline news as his collections was auctioned off for over £1.3 million at Sotheby’s after his death in 2016. That being said, it was not until 1990s when Memphis was finally widely accepted. Especially in the early 21th century where Memphis can easily be found in art spaces. Starting in March 2006, a year before Ettore Sottsass’ death, when Los Angeles County Museum of Art held an exhibition of Sottsass’ artworks, being the first major American survey of his designs.

Sottsass’ renowned Valentine typewriter (1966) | Image source: lacma.org

Years later in March 2014, Nathalie Du Pasquier designed a collection for American Apparel. It didn’t take long for people to slowly recognise the quirky design brought to life by one of the founding members of Memphis Group. Sofia Coppola was said to be infatuated with her Carrot vase. Skateboarding shop and clothing brand Supreme joined the act by collaborating with Alessandro Mendini to release a new collection of skate decks and clothing. Emerged in the first Memphis show, Mendini is also one of the leading Memphis designers. In March 2017, Memphis went big-box: West Elm premiered a collection from Dusen Dusen’s Ellen van Dusen, everything was Du Pasquier-inspired.

Du Pasquier’s American Apparel collection | Image source: domusweb.it

Nowadays, it’s rather hard to find original Memphis Group works as they have become collectibles with a cult following. Even so, Memphis pieces can be seen and purchased from various contemporary designers whom were all inspired by the bold, iconic style. Among those were Dusen Dusen’s textile, Recreation Center’s ceramics, Philip Lück’s set designs, Spencer Harrison’s artworks, Bash Party Goods’ paper plates, Camille Walala for Gorman’s clothing, Julie Moon’s ceramic jewelry, and Society6’s duvet cover. Even Philippe Starck, today’s best known and most imitated designer, is highly influenced by Memphis.

Main Features of Memphis Design

Just like how modernism and minimalism are defined as straight lines and archetypal shapes, there are a number of substantial characteristics of Memphis. The first being the use of Laminate and Terrazzo materials which were typically found on floors. Under Memphis influence, these materials were integrated into tables and lamps.

Memphis design is also renowned for involving Bacterio print covering the surface. Designed by Sottsass himself in 1978, this squiggles pattern has become one of the preeminent feature of Memphis. They are often presented with whacky geometry, replacing typical shapes like square and rectangle that represent 70’s minimalism the most. Odd shapes are oft found not only as patterns for the outer surface but also manifest in furniture physique. So shapes like circles or triangles would be found in place of rectangular table legs, for example.

Karl Lagerfeld’s Memphis collection | Image source: thecut.com

Meant to stand out and be eye-catching, Memphis features a bright, primary colour palette for every piece. Patterns are mostly drawn in black to enhance the peculiar complexion. Earthly colours and pastel shades are huge no’s, though they are sometimes used for recent Memphis adaptation.

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