‘Deep Dive’ evening talk revisits the ideas behind Memphis design and the collective inspired by Ettore Sottsass’s vision

An evening talk at the Sonos’ showroom in London’s Covent Garden was joined by Marcus Fairs, editor in chief at Dezeen, Deyan Sudjic, director of Design Museum and Adam Nathaniel Furman, London-based designer whose work is deeply inspired by the Memphis design movement.

The Memphis movement was founded in the 1980s in Italy by a group of designers who got together at Ettore Sottsass’s apartment in Milan, with the aim to challenge the rationalist design principles that they were taught. Sottsass, an architect and designer born in 1917, endured two world wars and his early work as an architect included modernist versions of buildings which were destroyed in WWII. Sottsass found himself in a time ripe for cultural reinvention and artistic audacity.

Above, “Tawaraya”, designed by Masanori Umeda, 1981 – a tatami bed in the form of a boxing ring, featuring founding members of the Memphis group

Later in his career, he began working in industrial design and one of his first pieces expressed youthful aspirations through the use of bright lipstick red ABS plastic casing in 1969: The Valentine portable typewriter. His subsequent designs were striking, bold in form with audacious colours, which began the early precursor to the Memphis movement.

Above, Olivetti Valentine typewriter, designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1969

The name “Memphis” was inspired by Bob Dylan’s song in 1966, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, which was often played in Sottsass’s apartment during the gatherings. The group drew inspirations from movements such as Art Deco, Futurism and Pop Art. Its aesthetics and form was manifested through works in architecture, furniture, consumer products, technology and art, through a huge variety of mediums including plastic and ceramics. Design critics often described Memphis designs as bizarre, illogical, some called it “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”. Some developed a loathing for the movement, others such as the late iconic pop star David Bowie adored Memphis design and had an extensive collection of original items from the movement.

As Sudjic pointed out during the discussion, the 1980s was the last era where designers really created a style and it was the last analogue age. Memphis straddled the transitional period in technology, consumerism and mass production in response to a world that was ebbing into the digital revolution. The collective responded to the transitions through broadening the style itself and with an insatiable appetite to constantly look for a new style. These ideas are palpable in the works through the use of ephemeral designs, incorporating cheap materials such as plastic laminate, asymmetrical shapes, colourful, decorative elements and with a penchant for the exotic. Though, Sottsass himself left the movement in 1985: “Memphis is a phenomenon that arose out of cultural and political necessities that are no longer” he said. He saw his life as a continuous reinvention and he evolved as a painter, writer, curator, photographer and later founded his own architecture practice, Sottsass Associati.

Above, “Memphis: Research, Experiences, Results, Failures, and Successes of New Design”, by Barbara Radice, 1984, Italian design critic and wife of Ettore Sottsass

Memphis, although a short-lived rebellious movement that entered the 1980s with plenty of punchy statements and bright pastel palettes, faded out before the decade closed. It was well received in the beginning with its cheerfulness and outrageousness, though it only achieved very limited commercial success and found difficulty translating the trend into mainstream sales. Memphis and the wider Post-Modernist movement hold a place of both contempt and fond nostalgia in our minds. It demonstrated brave experimentation and confronted traditional notions of aesthetics, it has triumphed in culture and Sottsass made designers understand how to design through an emotional approach. The upwardly mobile yuppies of the ‘80s are not too different to today’s generation of fast concept, ideas driven millennials. Perhaps in this day and age, Memphis and Post-Modernism will be in vogue again to battle with “good taste”?