MEMPHIS was a Milan-based collective of young furniture and product designers led by the veteran Ettore Sottsass. After its 1981 debut, Memphis dominated the early 1980s design scene with its post-modernist style.
Jasper Morrison remembers breaking into "a kind of cold sweat" and a "feeling of shock and panic" when he stumbled into the opening of a design exhibition at the Arc ’74 showroom in Milan on 18 September 1981. "It was the weirdest feeling," he recalled years later, "you were in one sense repulsed by the objects, or I was, but also immediately freed by the sort of total rule-breaking."
The rule-breaking had begun in December 1980 when Ettore Sottsass, one of Italy’s architectural grandees, met with a group of younger architects in his apartment on Milan’s Via San Galdino. He was in his 60s and his collaborators - Martine Bedin, Aldo Cibic, Michele De Lucchi, Matteo Thun and Marco Zanini – were in their 20s. With them was the writer, Barbara Radice. They were there to discuss Sottsass’ plans to produce a line of furniture with an old friend, Renzo Brugola, owner of a carpentry workshop.
Originally dubbed The New Design, the project was rechristened Memphis after the Bob Dylan lyric "Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)" stuck repeatedly at "Memphis Blues Again" on Sottsass’ record player. "Sottsass said: ‘Okay, let’s call it Memphis," wrote Radice, "and everyone thought it was a great name: Blues, Tennessee, rock’n’roll, American suburbs, and then Egypt, the Pharoahs’ capital, the holy city of the god, Ptah."
By February, the group, bolstered by the addition of George Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier, had completed over a hundred drawings of furniture, lamps and ceramics. There was no set formula. "No-one mentioned forms, colours, styles, decorations," observed Radice. That was the point. After decades of modernist doctrine, Sottsass and his collaborators longed to be liberated from the tyranny of smart, but soulless ‘good taste’ in design.
Their solution was to continue the experiments with uncoventional materials, historic forms, kitsch motifs and gaudy colours begun by Studio Alchymia, the radical late 1970s Italian design group to which Sottsass and De Lucchi had belonged. When the young Jasper Morrison and a couple of thousand others crowded into Arc ’74 on 18 September 1981 they discovered furniture made from the flashily coloured plastic laminates emblazoned with kitsch geometric and leopard-skin patterns usually found in 1950s comic books or cheap cafés.
Other pieces of furniture and lights were made from industrial materials – printed glass, celluloids, fireflake finishes, neon tubes and zinc-plated sheet-metals – jazzed up with flamboyant colours and patterns, spangles and glitter. By glorying in the cheesiness of consumer culture, Memphis was "quoting from suburbia," as Sottsass put it. "Memphis is not new, Memphis is everywhere." Matteo Thun described Memphis as "a mental gymnasium".
Sottsass’ 1981 Beverly cabinet sported green and yellow ‘snakeskin’ laminate doors with brown ‘tortoiseshell’ book shelves at a topsy turvy angle and a bright red bulb in the light. Sowden’s 1981 Oberoi armchairs combined tomato red upholstery with bright yellow or blue legs and Nathalie du Pasquier’s pink and black mosaic print in a chubby 1950s style. Martine Bedin’s 1981 Superlamp ressembled an illuminated dachsund with multi-coloured bulbs framing a richly-coloured fibreglass arc. Team Memphis posed for a group portrait lounging in Tawaraya, a boxing ring-cum-playpen with a monochrome striped base, pastel-coloured ‘ropes’ and a white light bulb at each corner designed by a Japanese collaborator, Masanori Umeda. The finishing touch was the invitation to the exhibition opening: a postcard image of a yawning dinosaur painted against a lightning-scarred sky by Luciano Paccagnella.
It was an exuberant two-fingered salute to the design establishment after years in which colour and decoration had been taboo. Memphis also scoffed at the notion that ‘good’ design had to last. "It is no coincidence that the people who work for Memphis don’t pursue a metaphysic aesthetic idea or an absolute of any kind, much less eternity," observed Sottsass. "Today everything one does is consumed. It is dedicated to life, not to eternity."
Little about Memphis was truly innovative. Most of its concepts had been trail-blazed by Alchymia. Yet the Memphis collaborators were much more adept at communicating their ideas and at manipulating Ettore Sottsass’ contacts. He even persuaded Artemide, the Italian lighting manufacturer, to work with them.
Within the design world, Memphis was a watershed. "You were either for it, or against it. "All the boring old designers hated it. The rest of us loved it," recalled Bill Moggridge, co-founder of the IDEO industrial design group. Among the old guard was Vico Magistretti. "This furniture offers no possibility of development whatsoever," he declaimed. "It is only a variant of fashion."
Memphis was seen as equally sensational outside the closed confines of the design community. The packed opening party, cool graphics and hip young designers – male and female, from different countries - proved irresistible to the mass media. Perfectly in tune with an era when pop culture was dominated by the post-punk flamboyance of early 1980s new romanticism, Memphis was also a colourful, clearly defined manifestation of the often obscure post-modernist theories then so influential in art and architecture.
Fashion designer, Karl Lagerfeld, furnished his Monte Carlo apartment with Memphis. The US architect, Michael Graves, joined the collective: as did Javier Mariscal from Spain, Arata Isozaki and Shiro Kurumata from Japan. Memphis was splashed across magazines worldwide. There were exhibitions in London, Los Angeles, Tokyo, San Francisco, New York and back in Milan. But Sottsass became increasingly disillusioned with Memphis and the media circus around it, in 1985 he announced that he was leaving the collective.
Like Miles Davis, who resolutely refused to replay old music, throughout his long career, Sottsass always insisted on moving forward rather than reliving past glories. For him, quitting Memphis at the height of its fame was the only logical course of action. "Acclaimed as a symbol and persecuted like a rock star, far from feeling satisfaction or pleasure, he (Sottsass) sank into one of the worst crises of his life," wrote Barbara Radice a few years later.
Having broken free from Memphis, Sottsass concentrated his energies on his own architectural practise, Sottsass Associati, where he continued to work with many of his young collaborators, including Branzi, Cibic and De Lucchi. "I am a designer and I want to design things," Sottsass had written a few years before founding Memphis. "What else would I do? Go fishing?"
All images courtesy of Dennis Zanone
Members of Memphis
Sottsass was considered the key source of inspiration and the binding force within Memphis, along with his partner Barbara Radice. His contributions to the group included furniture, lamps, ceramic and glass objects, as well as decorative patterns for material.
Raddice was closely involved in the founding of Memphis. Along with Sottsass, with whom she had lived since 1976, she became the driving force and artistic leader of the movement. She also published a number of articles and a book about on Memphis and it's members.
Michele De Lucchi
One of the co-founders of the Memphis group, of which he was one of the most active members until it broke up in 1988. His designs included furniture lighting and pieces made of glass and mirrors.
Having previously founded Sottsass Associati along with Sottsass, Thun and Zanini in 1980, Cibic was one of the steady members of Memphis from 1981-1987. He designed furniture, lighting and ceramics.
Matteo Thun was a founder of Sottsass Associati and was deeply involved in Memphis from it's inception until 1984. He made ceramics, furniture, lamps and other objects for the group.
Another founding member of Sottsass Associati, Zanini was a member of Memphis from the very beginning and continued to design furniture, lighting, small utensils, glass and ceramics for the group until 1988.
George James Sowden
George James Sowden had been working with Sottsass from 1978 and was involved in Memphis from inception and continued designing for the group until it's close in 1988. He contributed motifs and decoration for textiles and carpets and furniture, ceramics and clocks.
Nathalie Du Pasquier
With her original involvement born from her relationship with Sowden and her close friendship with Martine Bedine as teenagers, Du Pasquier became involved in the Memphis movement in 1981. Her textile decoration was key to the Memphis look and she also designed furniture, lamps and ceramics. She continues to work closely with George Sowden after the group dispersed.
Ettore had taken interest in Martine's designs at a show in 1979 and after finishing her studies she moved to Milan where she worked with him and the rest of the group. Martine became a member of Memphis in 1981 along with her teenage friend Nathalie du Pasquier. She designed Furniture, lamps and ceramic objects.
Having previously set up C.D.M (Design Consultancies Milan) with Sottsass, Branzi was asked to join Memphis in 1981 and designed furniture, lighting and other implements sporadically across it's time.
Having met Sottsass and Raddice in 1980, Peter Shire was invited to join the group in 1981 and made furniture, lighting and small objects for Memphis until 1988.
Although best known for this work in architecture, Graves was also involved in industrial design and designed both a dressing table in 1981 and a bed in 1982 for Memphis.
After moving to Milan in 1982, Taylor became a member of Memphis and over the two years that followed, designed furniture lighting and a variety of small objects.
Designed for Memphis in 1981,83 and 87. His contributions included a three-piece cabinet and a series of side-tables.
First made contact with the group in 1986 and designed furniture and lighting for Memphis from 1987-88.
Marco Zanuso Jr
In 1987 Marco began designing furniture and lamps for the group.
Designed a tea trolley for Memphis in 1981.
Designed a coffee table for Memphis in 1981.
Designed the Astor lamp for Memphis in 1982
Made both furniture and small objects for Memphis between 1981 and 1982.
At the peak of Memphis' fame in 1987, Caturegli designed a chair for the group.
Having known Ettore Sottsass for a number of years, Gismondi was asked to become the President of the group in 1981 and provide the commercial structure that it needed in order to build and sustain it's momentum.
Image credit: Dennis Zanone
Although the movement only lasted a relatively short time, the impact of Memphis is still very much felt today.
The designs of Memphis emerged as part of the Christian Dior haute couture’s 2011 fall collection, influences could be seen in the pastel organza layered skirts embroidered with the bold prints associated with the movement, topped off with glossy cube-shaped headpieces. Ettore Sottsass was also present at the show which, like the original movement, split opinions.
In 2013 and 2014 there was also a return of the bold patterns and designs of Memphis during Milan Design Week. Natalie du Pasquier from the group remerged after leaving the world of design to be an artist, with her bold signature prints used to cover products by well-known brands. They were launched in 2013 as part of the Wrong for Hay partnership between British designer Sebastian Wrong and Danish company Hay. Her graphics have also been used on garments by fashion brand American Apparel and for a rug produced by La Chance, which debuted in Milan in 2013.
2015 has seen a continuation of this trend, as the Kartell store launched a tribute to Memphis at it’s flagship store for the same event. ‘We are particularly proud this year to present some original objects that ettore sottsass designed for kartell in 2004 but that we have never produced. we have recovered them today wishing, with an event and with some special products, to celebrate a piece of design history… today as well technology enables us to realize sottsass’ designs with a quality and sophistication that would have been impossible ten years ago. this celebration and this new manufacturing commitment demonstrate once more how kartell goes beyond transitory styles and trends. with its design and its versatility it manages to cross eras and cultures, to give shape to the ideas of designers, turning them into lasting objects.’
Italian Living Design: Three Decades of Interiors
Author: Giuseppe Raimondi
Publisher: Tauris Parke (1990)
Memphis: Research, Experiences, Results, Failures, and Successes of New Design
Author: Barbara Radice
Publisher: Thames & Hudson (1995)