Memphis design, a colourful experience

David Bowie passed away in January 2016. A keen collector of art and design, Bowie had a fine collection of furniture from the Italian “Memphis” movement of the early 1980s. Some of these pieces sold for high prices at a Sotheby’s auction late last year. Since then, the ‘Memphis ‘ style has come back into fashion.
How did Memphis revolutionise the idea of ‘beautiful design’ at a certain time? What was the genesis of this trend and its initiators?

Memphis is an Italian design and architecture movement created in 1980 in Milan. The name also refers to a group of architects and designers who were part of a certain state of mind, the Memphis Group – Gruppo Memphis -. In contrast to previous design movements, Memphis did not follow a manifesto; it was above all a desire to produce furniture with great freedom in reaction to the bourgeois style of the time.

Memphis cannot be mentioned without mentioning its founder, one of the greatest Italian designers of the second half of the 20th century, Ettore Sottsass. Born in 1917 in Austria, Ettore Sottsass studied architecture and graduated from the Politecnico in Milan in 1939. He began to make a name for himself in 1956 when he began a collaboration with the Italian firm Olivetti that would last some twenty years. This association produced objects that have become cult items, such as the Valentine, a portable typewriter in bright red. – David Bowie even had one! -.

machine à écrire

Valentine portable typewriter, design Ettore Sottsass and Perry A.King, 1969

While Sottsass benefited from the post-war economic boom, which favoured the development of the Italian furniture industry, he was marked by a trip to India in 1961, before settling in California, at the height of the Pop Art period. These seminal experiences led him to question the societal significance of design. Thus, in 1972, he was on the poster of the now cult exhibition at MoMA: Italy: the New Domestic Landscape

. The show caused a sensation by “dynamiting” the predominance of the European style inherited from the Bauhaus, and criticizing the growing industrialization of the furniture industry.

Le premier ordinateur italien, le Elea 9003 - 1958 - Ettore Sottsass en créé le design

The first Italian computer, the Elea 9003, designed in 1958 by Ettore Sottsass. For this work he received the Compasso d’Oro (the most influential international design prize at the time). – Source

Attentive to this protest movement which claimed a radical design free of all productivist and marketing pressure, Ettore Sottsass joined the Alchimia studio in 1977, founded a year earlier by the architects Alessandro Mendini and Alessandro Guerriero. Alchimia sketched out the contours of what would become Memphis: a spirit of freedom that mixed styles and materials. But Sottsass wanted to go further. In 1980, he left Alchimia with Michele de Lucchi and founded Memphis, in reference to a Bob Dylan song, Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again.

Surrounded by younger designers such as Marco Zanoni, Aldo Cibic and Martine Bedin, the members of Memphis sent the chrome tables and their smoked Plexiglas to hell, as well as the beige tones of the sofas and other modular bookcases. They need colour, they need to stage asymmetrical shapes

in a zany decor, in short, they need to implode the “good design” of the 70s..

Lampe de table Super par Martine Bedin pour Memphis Milano, 1981

Super table lamp by Martine Bedin for Memphis Milano, 1981 – Source

Lampe Ashoka, Ettore Sottsass, Memphis Milano, 1981

Ashoka lamp, Ettore Sottsass, Memphis Milano, 1981Source

Memphis’s stroke of genius was to turn plastic laminate

, more commonly known as formica or laminate, a material that was then a symbol of vulgarity and low quality, into a vehicle for its creativity. The members of the movement used it by customising it to overturn the aesthetic codes in force at the time. They also combined it with much more classic materials such as lacquered wood, metal and fabric.

Ettore Sottsass, Bibliothèque Carlton & Lampe Tahiti, Memphis Milano, 1981
Ettore Sottsass, Carlton Library & Tahiti Lamp, Memphis Milano, 1981[/caption]

Lido, Sofa , 1982. Design Michele de Lucchi pour Memphis Milano

Lido, Sofa, 1982. Design Michele de Lucchi for Memphis Milano

The Carlton storage bookcase designed by Sottsass in 1981 is made of polychrome lacquered wood and plastic laminate. The laminate panels combine bright colours and the flexibility of the material allows for surprising geometric shapes, such as totem poles, reminiscent of the creative language of Memphis’ contemporary Pop-Art artist Keith Haring. The Tahiti lamp also combines different materials. The base is made of white laminate with a repeated pattern typical of Memphis, combined with polychrome enamelled metal. Memphis designers blur the lines, combining materials so different that they end up developing a new language. The Lido sofa designed by Michele de Lucchi

combines laminate, lacquered wood, metal and an upholstery fabric created for the occasion.
There is nothing surprising about these assemblages or agglomerations. In the spirit of Sottsass, Memphis design is more like a “succession of happy accidents” of materials that ultimately make up surprising ensembles. Unlike more formal design in which the object has a structure, with Memphis the design process is reversed. It is the disparate elements that ultimately create a unity.

The Memphis designers also do not hesitate to combine plain plastics, laminated prints or printed fabrics with more noble materials, such as marble or burr walnut. How about the Agra sofa, made in 1982 by Sottsass, which combines marble with chintz cotton? The marble looks like plastic, in a role that is out of place given its nobility..

[caption id="attachment_8730" align="aligncenter" width="555"]Ettore Sottsass, divano Agra, Memphis Milano, 1982 Ettore Sottsass, divano Agra, Memphis Milano, 1982

The members of Memphis attach particular importance to decoration. In this respect, it is interesting to single out a singular figure in the movement, Nathalie Du Pasquier. She designs many of the printed motifs found on the furniture, textiles, carpets and objects of the Memphis Group. A gifted decorator, she mixes all styles: cubism, futurism, art-deco, and is inspired by more exotic cultures such as Africa and India, but also draws on graffiti, manga and science fiction.

Royal Sofa, Nathalie Du Pasquier, Memphis Milano, 1983

Royal Sofa, Nathalie Du Pasquier, Memphis Milano, 1983

« Oberoi » chairs, Georges J. Snowden, Memphis Milano, 1981. Motifs dessinés par Nathalie Du Pasquier

“Oberoi” chairs, Georges J. Snowden, Memphis Milano, 1981. Patterns designed by Nathalie Du Pasquier

A gauche motif créé par Nathalie Du Pasquier, 1984 / A droite Tapis créé par Nathalie Du Pasquier pour Memphis Milano, 1983

On the left pattern designed by Nathalie Du Pasquier, 1984 / On the right carpet designed by Nathalie Du Pasquier for Memphis Milano, 1983

Nathalie Du Pasquier, motifs créés pour Memphis Milano, 1981-1983

Nathalie Du Pasquier, designs created for Memphis Milano, 1981-1983Source

The Memphis adventure officially began on September 18, 1981 with the presentation of the first models during the Milan Furniture Fair, but ended in 1988. Ettore Sottsass and his team had succeeded in combining a new language of furniture, sensual and less intellectual, with the aesthetic canons of the time

The Memphis movement produced almost 300 pieces in 8 “Memphis Milano” collections, created between 1981 and 1988. This historical catalogue of collections still exists, distributed by the company Memphis. The historical furniture and objects continue to be produced by hand; the Memphis catalogue has also been enriched with other collections, to the delight of passionate collectors who find in Memphis an energy that is always so pleasing!

Photo de la collection privée de Dennis Zanone, considéré aujourd'hui comme le plus grand collectionneur mondial de « Memphis »

Photo from the private collection of Dennis Zanone, now considered the world’s largest collector of “Memphis”Source

François Boutard