The legacy of Memphis


23 September 2011

This weekend Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970-1990, opens at the V&A in London. Part of that exhibition is dedicated to the design collective that embodied the era - Memphis. Fittingly it is exactly 30 years, this week, since it revealed its first collection at the Arc' 74 gallery in Milan.

"Memphis was a catastrophe, it wasn't successful at all," says Italian designer and Memphis co-founder Michele de Lucchi. "It was very influential and the Memphis idea was very famous but in terms of commercial success...zero." Yet Memphis was one of the most influential design movements of the late 20th century and the products that came out of its existence was all the rage for a few years in the 1980s -- both Helmut Newton and Karl Lagerfeld furnished their Monte Carlo apartments in the style. Nowadays the remains of those few years in the early 1980s are collectors' pieces and precious museum objects.

As is written in design folklore, Memphis' founding members Martine Bedin, Aldo Cibic, Michele De Lucchi, Matteo Thun, Marco Zanini, George Sowden and Ettore Sottsass, almost missed the opening of their first exhibition. Traffic on Milan's narrow roads were at a stand-still because of the thousands of people that attempted to get into the Memphis opening at the Arc' 74 gallery on 18 September 1981. That is just one of many mythical stories that the design collective created during its short existence -- Sottsass departed in dramatic fashion already in 1985. Dazzled by its glossy, colourful surface treatments and its media-savvy, its critics dismissed Memphis as shallow and attention seeking, while its plaudits considered it groundbreaking.

The idea behind Memphis was to create a collection of objects that challenged Modernism's clinical aesthetics. The result was a cacophony of colours and patterns and seemingly pointless forms. The Carlton cabinet by Sottsass, which was part of that first show, sprouts shelves in all directions and seems incapable of fulfilling its function as a book case. The Tawaraya tatami mat boxing ring-cum-conversation pit by Masanori Umeda brought a new typology of furniture to the living room. "We thought we were producing products that made people's lives better, society happier, which of course didn't happen," said Ettore Sottsass to the New York Times in 2002. "But we did open up the possibilities of design. It was like opening a window to reveal a new landscape. Why should a table have four identical legs? Why should laminate veneer be only for the kitchen and bathroom and not for a luxurious living room?"

Because of the intricate details and high production values of Memphis' designs they never made it into mass production. Local craftsmen produced most of the pieces and the Memphis retail environment was that of the refined design gallery rather than the design store. The collections remained exclusive and although Memphis pushed at the boundaries of accepted taste it didn't make its products available to a wider public, even if some pieces toyed with the idea of mass manufacture.

Then again, Memphis didn't have any ambition to spread totalitarian ideals, in fact this was one of the reasons why Sottsass and his collective rejected Modernism in the first place. In Italy in particular, its more grandiose schemes had become indelibly associated with fascism. Sottsass took the theory of Pop that emanated from the Independent Group at London's ICA and mixed it with influences of op-art and American minimalist sculpture, to reach the now-iconic forms that exemplify Memphis furniture. In her monograph on the group Barbara Radice explains that Memphis emerged, "not from an aggressive, controversial outlook or a desire to invent new supports, monuments, truths or programs, but from a generic, biological, existential happiness; from the consciousness of life as an indifferent cosmic-historic event and from the desire to taste it, consume it, communicate it physically, almost chemically or molecularly, as a vibrant, neutral, enticing, seductive presence."

With such an emphasis on sensory experience, it's not difficult to see how Memphis could be enmeshed with the hedonistic attitude we now associate with the 1980s. Sadly, it was precisely the fact that these ideas translated into vibrant, image-friendly objects, that led to the work being dismissed as shallow in the first place. What is overlooked by most commentators, however, is the hidden legacy that the groups' ideas seeded in designers whose work one would not associate with it. Jasper Morrison was just 20 years old when he visited that first Memphis show. He recalls "I can remember a kind of cold sweat at the opening...It was the weirdest feeling: you were in one sense repulsed by the objects, or I was, but also immediately freed by the sort of total rule-breaking." In relation to his college work Morrison recounts: "Suddenly you could say: 'But why can't I do it this way, it's valid, if that's going on'. It's maybe not the most practical kind of design but it had the effect to free everything up, to show that we don't have to accept all these constraints and all these ridiculous rules about how one should design." According to Droog Design co-founder Renny Ramakers, the Dutch design collective wouldn't exist without Memphis' influence. Droog's work when it arrived 15 years later is often described as a response to the excess of Memphis. Looking at the exhibits on display in the Postmodernism show at the V&A, the breath of fresh air that Memphis brought is still felt from that window Sottsass and his colleagues opened thirty years ago.