The influence of Italian design and architecture group, Memphis Milano – founded by Ettore Sottsass – was so monumental that it now defines the aesthetic of the entire 1980s decade.
It gave birth to the Memphis design style.
You could even say that there have been very few design movements to surpass it in playfulness.
But how did Memphis Milano's bold flamboyance come to be?
THE BIRTH OF A RADICAL MOVEMENT
Austrian-Italian designer Sottsass – counted as among the foremost playful Italian furniture designers – was tired of the modern aesthetic and found it to be boring.
He wanted to create something new and disruptive, free from the dogma of the functionally-driven, clean, modernist aesthetic pervasive during that period.
He called his friends over, some of whom he had collaborated with during his time at the post-radical Studio Alchimia.
Most of the founding Memphis members – Michele De Lucchi, Aldo Cibic, Matteo Thun, Marco Zanini, Martine Bedin and the journalist Barbara Radice – met at Sottsass’ 40sqm Via San Galdino apartment in Milan in 1980.
The group would later grow to include international members like Shiro Kuramata and Peter Shire.
The Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” was allegedly playing on loop that boozy night. Memphis is the Tennessee city where Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley were born, as well as the name of the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis.
And so, the collective picked their multilayered name.
BETWEEN BAUHAUS AND FISHER-PRICE
The collective debuted its first collection of 55 pieces at the Arc '74 gallery in Milan during the city’s Salone Del Mobile design fair in September 1981.
It is estimated that over 2,000 people showed up to see the collection, causing a wild ruckus outside the gallery.
Much of the pieces were named after global luxury hotels; the Casablanca cabinet was named after the Miami landmark, and the Plaza and the Carlton after those in New York.
Although each item was signed by a different designer, the process was anything but individualistic. They worked as a collective with Sottsass spearheading the aesthetic.
Peter Shire’s Brazil desk (1981). Photo: Riccardo Gasperoni. Courtesy of Memphis Milano, Milan.
Among many hyperboles, the first collection from Memphis was described as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”.
The pieces were characterised by sharp angles, geometric and asymmetrical shapes, and flamboyant colours.
The collective’s use of plastic laminate – which was then regarded to be a cheap material reserved for the diners – was unexpected, and the group closely worked with the manufacturer Abet Laminati to source their sheets.
Installation view of Aldo Cibic’s Madison floor lamp (1983). Photo: Riccardo Gasperoni. Courtesy of Memphis Milano, Milan.
They also created a variety of patterns that have become synonymous with the Memphis aesthetic.
Sottsass’ "Bacterio" wormlike confetti print is instantly recognisable and is directly associated with the designer.
Graphic design patterns inspired by Shiro Kuramata’s glass terrazzo material, "Star Piece" (which he used in his Kyoto and Nara tables for Memphis), continue to be widespread.
And, of course, Sottsass’ "Spugnato" (Italian for "sponged") and "Veneziana" plastic laminate prints.
THE END OF A MINI ERA
Despite the public’s awe and the international press coverage, the commercial sales of Memphis items proved to be poor; the furniture pieces were often too colourful to furnish the typical home (though avid collectors David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld – the latter who decorated his Monaco home almost exclusively with Memphis items – would have likely disagreed).
Plus, the furniture wasn’t necessarily optimised for functionality. There simply weren’t many opportunities for mass production.
The Memphis life cycle was short. Sottsass left Memphis in 1985.
“It’s like a love story,” he once said in an interview. “When you get used to it, you have to quit.”
The rest of the group disassembled in 1987 and hosted their last exhibition, “Luci Lights”, in 1988.
Installation view of various items at Memphis Milano. Courtesy of Memphis Milano, Milan.
Despite its short-liveness, the influence of Memphis on popular culture and design was monumental. It helped shape the television show Saved By The Bell’s aesthetic, Taco Bell’s interiors, MTV shows and logos, and much more.
But, its characteristics have continued to resurrect over the years.
In fashion, Dior’s Autumn/Winter 2011 couture show famously took inspiration from the collective, as did Missoni’s Autumn/Winter 2015 show.
Artists like Morag Myerscough cite the group as a significant influence.
The Memphis Milano gallery currently preserves the legacy of the movement.
According to the gallery, Memphis designs “are still produced today in unlimited series in the belief that design should be understood as a means of communication and not as an expression of elitist art”.
FAMOUS MEMPHIS DESIGNS
From a bookcase to a lamp, cabinet and chair, there are numerous furniture items that come to mind when talking about Memphis design.
The most iconic are the ones that have stood the test of time, and are now still making a statement with their bold colours and eyecatching patterns. These remain a talking point among fans of the Memphis design movement.
CARLTON BOOKCASE (1981), ETTORE SOTTSASS
Photo: Riccardo Gasperoni. Courtesy of Memphis Milano, Milan.
David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld both owned it, and it currently decorates model Cara Delevingne’s living room. Sottsass’ Carlton Bookcase has grown to become the emblem of the Memphis movement and its most famous item.
The medium-density fibreboard and plastic laminate piece was part of the Memphis group’s debut collection in September 1981 during Salone Del Mobile at Arc '74 gallery in Milan.
Doubling as both a bookcase and a room divider, the piece stands 77 inches high. It’s overwhelmingly colourful and features Sottsass’ signature "Bacterio" print at its base.
Its slanted shelving means it can’t handle a large volume of books, but the piece had taken on sculptural significance instead of functionality. The Carlton Bookcase currently retails for €15,600 at Memphis Milano.
SUPER LAMP (1981), MARTINE BEDIN
Featuring six light sockets, Martine Bedin’s table lamp “Super Lamp” made its first appearance at the Memphis group’s debut collection in September 1981 during Salone Del Mobile at Arc '74 gallery in Milan.
Built in fibreglass and lacquered metal, the semicircular lamp is set on wheels and can be dragged with its cord, like a pet.
The French designer was only twenty-three when she sketched Super Lamp and was concerned about releasing it under her name, but Sottsass encouraged her to do so.
CASABLANCA CABINET (1981), ETTORE SOTTSASS
Photo: Riccardo Gasperoni. Courtesy of Memphis Milano, Milan.
The Casablanca, like the Carlton, doubles as both a room divider and a storage unit. Sottsass cheekily designed its angled arms to house wine bottles.
It features the designer’s "Spugnato" pattern across all its plastic laminate sides. Like most other items that debuted in Milan as part of the Memphis group’s first collection, the Casablanca is named after a hotel – in this case, the Casablanca Hotel in Miami.
FIRST CHAIR (1983), MICHELE DE LUCCHI
Michele De Lucchi’s ‘First Chair’ on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo: Sailko/Wikimedia Commons
Michele De Lucchi’s First Chair is the only Memphis item to have been mass-produced, with about 3,000 pieces manufactured.
As its name indicates, it’s the first chair designed for Memphis. De Lucchi designed it by starting with a stool and adding the cut-out backrest in lacquered wood, mimicking a universe with its sun and planets.
Cover Credit: Riccardo Gasperoni. Courtesy of Memphis Milano, Milan
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat