“What, after all this, is the purpose of Memphis?”.
“The purpose of Memphis is to exist”.
Barbara Radice interviews Ettore Sottsass, 1982
The Memphis design was a group headed by Italian designer Ettore Sottsass. Their designs were a reaction against the slick, black humorless design of the 1970’s. It was a time of minimalism with such products as typewriters, buildings, cameras, cars and furniture all seeming to lack personality and individualism.
Kitsch geometric and leopard-skin patterns, usually found in 1950s comic books or cheap cafés, found their way into Memphis’s designs. In doing so, they managed to turn the idea that high culture could become populist, entirely on its head. Thus the cheesiness in colour and texture of popular culture at the time, was elevated to the status of élite objects.
Despite its now somewhat dated look, this design ethos was absolutely ground-braking for the time. Memphis was “quoting from suburbia,” for a high class market. In effect, Sottsass was injecting a dose of postmodernism into mainstream European design. This was design as cultural criticism, rather than as a functional tool or statement of modernist intent.
The packed September 1981opening party, complete with 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.
The media circus surrounding the work of Memphis, contributed to its demise. Sottsass left the group in 1985 at the peak of its glory, because as he saw it Memphis was being stripped of meaning by the impact of the very media coverage that had driven it to global prominence. However, its impact has lasted.
“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.
So influential were Memphis, that after just two years their work was being purchased by the museums – the Victoria & Albert in London held a Memphis exhibition as early as 1982. Phillipe Stark cites Memphis as being one of his major influences.
It may not have been a commercial success, but it did open up new possibilities 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?