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Historic, but by no means finished: the Memphis design movement is forty. What has become of the impulse that was revolutionary and nice at the same time and changed design to communication?

By Thomas Wagner.

Anniversaries are a funny thing. They often smell musty of compulsory exercise and are powdered with archival dust. One bows publicly to the achievements of a person or movement whose historical merits are obvious but long gone, in other words: done. Unrealised potential? Promising possibilities? Instead of looking for them, we prefer to be history-blind, stare at the present and paint the future as either a technoid consumerist paradise or a joyless grey dystopia. In such times, any look back is suspected of being as boring as it is superfluous. The “Memphis” design movement is history. Originating in Milan in the early 1980s, it would have turned forty this year, not really an age to be filed away in the archives under the category of “used-to-be-important”. Was Memphis intellectual snobbery? Just a cheap trick? Or are some impulses emanating from Memphis still important?

Revolutionary and nice at the same time

Memphis and all those who set it in motion wanted to be revolutionary and nice at the same time. They wanted to break the ice of functionalism and bring dynamism into a design system that, from their perspective, was no longer moving in step with the times, repeating itself in the same cycle of order, design, product, order, design, product, and so on. Memphis did not want to be merely nice, i.e.: adapted, because in the historical situation around 1980. History no longer seemed unchangeable. Rather, it became (keyword postmodernism) a game that could be played with verve, humour and irony. What Ettore Sottsass, Michele de Lucchi and their comrades-in-arms sensed earlier than others in design was a change in the relationship to the real, the “revolt of the signs”. Added to this: They had become aware that all “solutions” can only be provisional, have a necessarily provisional character. Each one has its time. This had to be understood at last and the consequences drawn from it. Since Memphis wanted to shake things up and attract attention, it was no coincidence that a snarling dinosaur posed on the invitation card to the first Memphis exhibition on 18 September 1981.

Finding a new way

When what would come to be called “Memphis” began to form in the winter of 1980/81, the fermentation had long been underway. Or, to put it more correctly: crisis awareness had become epidemic. A small group of Milanese architects and designers around Ettore Sottsass and Michele de Lucchi felt, as Barbara Radice puts it, “the urgent need to find a new way, a way to other spaces, other environments and another image of life”.

Michele de lucchi für memphis srl., first chair, 1983
Michele de lucchi per memphis srl., first chais, 1983 – Furniture in the Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo: Sailko. Published by Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 International license.

With the Memphis Blues again

Legend has it that at a meeting on 11 December 1980 in the flat of Sottsass and Radice, at which Michele de Lucchi and Matteo Thun were also present, Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” was playing permanently. Supposedly no one wanted to turn the record over, so Dylan kept singing “Oh, Mama, can this really be the end / To be stuck inside of Mobile / With the Memphis blues again”. Milan wasn’t Mobile, Alabama, but they thought they were stuck there too. The name “Memphis” then appeared for the first time in de Lucchi’s sketchbooks. He wrote it on the first page, right next to the date 11 December 1980. The Memphis collective then included, to mention only the most famous names, Sottsass, his wife Barbara Radice, Michele de Lucchi and Matteo Thun, as well as Andrea Branzi, Nathalie du Pasquier, Alessandro Mendini, Michael Graves, Massimo Iosa Ghini, Shiro Kuramata and George Sowden, Marco Zanini and Marco Zanuso.

Against the stupid boredom

Plakat Ausstellung Memphis im Musée des Arts décoratifs in Bordeaux

Poster of the Memphis exhibition at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Bordeaux by Nathalie Du Pasquier, 1983. Foto: Delphine.delmares. Published by Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The cheerfully tuned aggressiveness was (as so often) the result of a blues, a melancholically tinged but taking place reaction to the ossified circumstances. As Radice vividly describes it, the usual furnishing rituals were called into question: the “two leather sofas, the jagged wall appliqués in Art Deco style, monochrome carpeting and ‘Here’s a picture, here’s a sculpture’ illuminated by spotlights, ‘Here’s a drink, here’s a stick of salt’, if possible on a chrome and glass tea trolley”. The lusty revolt did not come out of nowhere. Radical Design and, for a short time, Alchimia, had prepared the ground, but set other priorities, which is why Memphis also began as a secession of the impatient. The desire to take action against “the stupid boredom”, to strike a blow against the design establishment and to find an answer to internationally “correct” design was correspondingly great. As is not uncommon with revolts against the status quo, this one was also a revolt against the prevailing, so-called “good taste”.

The fact that in design, which operates at the interface of aesthetics and economy, it is not only new technologies and materials that bring about change, but also aesthetic decisions that have a communicative effect, can be observed at Memphis, even if many seem to have forgotten this today. The fact is: when Memphis arrived, the visual and product language urgently needed updating. What existed felt, as Sottsass used to say, “like chewing cardboard after a while”. So what was needed, Radice said in an interview, “was a bit of mustard, wasn’t it?” The material for a good show was there, but the show itself had not yet begun. So, in keeping with the spirit of the times, the emphasis was entirely on communication rather than function.

Frontal attack on purified modernity

The patterns alone – colourfully printed formica – seemed like a frontal attack on the purified modernity of glass, chrome in the white cube. The relationship between “high and low” was reversed in a postmodern way: Resopal was vulgar, poor, inauthentic, a piece of bad taste from the subculture. And it had a decisive advantage: it took away the anonymity and abstractness of the decoration. Precisely because the material and décor came across as comic and clichéd and had no high-cultural consecration, they appeared unencumbered.

The surfaces are not adorned with acanthus leaves and they do not bear palmettes but, according to an early drawing by Sottsass, teeming “bacteria”, among other things. Even the clearly discernible form of the furniture is attacked by patterns as if by viruses and bacteria that decompose it. The patterns eat up the form. New cultural codes are programmed by means of Formica, printed glass, galvanised sheet metal, fluted metal, neon tubes and coloured light bulbs. The materials no longer indicate technical functions, they enhance and irritate perception. What counts is image and communicative effect. The focus is on the elements that define the object, not on the object itself as a unit. “Every coincidence”, says Sottsass, “gets its formal and decorative identity. A Memphis table is decoration. Structure and decoration are identical.”

Return of the Barbarians

Unlike in earlier discussions of modernism, ornament now no longer appears as a crime but as a promise. Adolf Loos’ head is tattooed with new patterns, as it were. Rooms dissolve into flirtatious décor, living becomes an anarchic party zone. Sensual, lustful, polite and consumerist, the Memphis barbarians reconquered the oh-so-civilised but cardboard-tasting zones. The modern Biedermeier seems to be on drugs; a pop cosmos of its own emerges, crammed with zeitgeist messages. Memphis does not criticise mass culture. Rather, it focuses on its expressiveness and its constant change.

Beyond progress and utopia

Supermostra Esselunga (Florence 2018)
Supermostra Esselunga (Florence 2018). Foto: Sailko. Published by Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 International license.

The fact that Memphis conceived of what happens in the world and in commodity production not as fixed, but as a hypothesis of probabilities, changed the purpose and message of design. This includes: there are always possibilities beyond existing routines. For Sottsass and his comrades-in-arms it was always clear that design has no supra-temporal, even metaphysical value; it belongs to culture and changes with it. Because it appeared in the spirit of hypothesis and did not promise any solutions (which would prove untenable anyway), Memphis was able to appear so refreshing, disturbing and liberating. It was closer to anthropology and sociology than engineering and marketing. For all its exuberance, it remained sober and realistic at the same time; it neither believed in progress nor imagined utopias. Instead, they concentrated their energies on the expressive and emotional relationships between people and objects.

In this, and in having demonstrated that it is possible to act in a revolutionary and at the same time communicative and consumer-oriented way in design, lies an impulse that, beyond all patterns, colours and materials, could also motivate a departure today. However, such a departure could only succeed if one were to agree that it takes more than an abstract anti-capitalist attitude and a merely asserted morality of sustainable production to get to the roots of a wasteful way of life in and with design. Doesn’t design today also bite far too often and far too naturally at things that feel “like chewing cardboard”?


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