The Memphis Blues Again

Published:  March 14, 2014

While perusing the Arc ’74 showroom on 18 September 1981, British furniture designer Jasper Morrison recalls “feelings of shock and panic”. During the Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano, an annual furniture fair known for featuring cutting edge designs, Morrison had come across the debuted collection of the Memphis Group. This handful of young designers and architects, disenchanted with the high-minded moralistic strictures of modernism, united under the moniker in the early 1980s, and from the beginning shook the design community. A fervent minimalist, Morrison recalls breaking into “a kind of cold sweat”[i] when he was confronted with the highlighter colour laminates, clunky shapes and eclectic appropriations of exotic prints and formal motifs that came to characterise the group. “It was the weirdest feeling,” Morrison says, “you were in one sense repulsed by the objects, but also freed by this sort of total rule-breaking.”

Furniture and interiors by The Memphis Group

Responses to the Memphis Group were mixed, but, positive or negative, the feelings were unanimously impassioned. “You were either for it or against it,” recalls Bill Moggridge, co-founder of the IDEO industrial design group. “All the boring old designers hated it. The rest of us loved it.”[ii] Such reactions are understandable. The Memphis Group posited themselves as a force of opposition that rallied against the tenants of modernism, which had dominated design culture for most of the 20th century. Seen many times before, avant-garde movements attempt to spur controversy and in doing so inspire some and offend others.

Chairs by The Memphis Group

Modernism was in its time the leading force of opposition. It broke the rules of 19th century classical regurgitation and proposed a new technically advanced utopia, in which old world ideas were made irrelevant. By the 1970s, the rules modernism had established that outlawed ornament, disregarded history and prescribed a set of narrow agendas presumptuously named the ‘International Style’, had been so ubiquitously embraced that it entered into banality. Young designers, who were culturally diverse and conscious of the marginalised and overlooked elements in society, brought modernism’s exclusive hegemony into question. The underlying contrarian attitude that values forces of opposition such as the avant-garde, which once fuelled the early modernist, suddenly turned against modernism. US architects Robert Venturi and Charles Jencks along with Italian collectives such as Archizoom, Superstudio and, later, the Memphis Group began to challenge all of these rules and called for a more inclusive model that incorporated the everyday, the kitsch, the unabashedly cheesy and the taboo into the realm of art.

The House of Memphis stole the show in 1981. Many attendees reacted similarly to Jasper Morrison. They were simultaneously shocked yet enthralled with the gaudy, pastiche and cheekily kitsch appearance of the work. The Beverly Desk by renowned Italian architect Ettore Sottsass featured a yellow and green snakeskin door with tortoiseshell book shelves and a glowing red light bulb jutting off the corner of a bent metal pipe. Masanori Umeda contributed a playfully miniaturised boxing ring turned bed with black and white vertical stripes wrapping all four sides and a light post in each corner. These whimsical pieces were an effrontery laden smirk at the pretentious black-box design dogma that had become so prevalent.

By 1980, Sottsass had already established a career working with Olivetti, and been awarded the prestigious 1959 Compasso d’Oro prize for his work on the Elea 9003 computer. Ever eager to challenge the status quo, Sottsass, who was in his 60s, invited six young architects and designers in their 20s to dinner at his Milan apartment to discuss his plans for a new collection. That December evening Sottsass and his guests – designers Martine Bedin, Aldo Cibic, Michele De Lucchi, Matteo Thun and Marco Zanini, accompanied by writer Barbara Radice – banded together to form what was initially dubbed ‘The New Design’. The group discussed Sottsass’ plan to produce a line of furniture with Renzo Brugola, a cabinetmaker with whom Sottsass had previously collaborated. As the group mingled in Sottsass’ apartment sharing their collective frustration with the oppressive and outmoded demands of modernist doctrine, Bob Dylan’s ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ played on the turntable. Fortuitously, the record player caught and looped repeatedly on the lyric “Memphis blues again”, at which point Sottsass proclaimed, “OK, let’s call it Memphis.”

Everyone agreed, explained Radice, writing that Memphis seemed like the perfect name because it brought with it the multilayered connotations of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll, the American South, and also ancient Egypt and the mysteries of the pharaohs. Antithetical to the modernist ideology that absolved history and replaced it with a sleek futurist Utopia, the name Memphis connotes ‘the King’ and ‘Graceland meets Queen Cleopatra and the Seven Ancient Wonders’.

In this way, Milan and Memphis are surprisingly similar. Like its quasi-Gothic buttress-less cathedral Milan contends with a palimpsest of new and old world cultures, where the weight of history somehow merges with a high modern sensibility. It was precisely this ‘both, in-between and all at once’ philosophy free of any stringent or restrictive doctrines that the Memphis Group tried to achieve. Sottsass expressed his aspirations for the group, saying, “Memphis exists in a gelatinous, rarefied area whose very nature precludes any set models and definitions.”[iii] They wanted to break all the rules and leave them broken.

Over the next few months following Sottsass’ dinner party, the group expanded, adding to its ranks designers George Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier. In just a short time, its portfolio grew to include hundreds of drawings of furniture, lamps and ceramics. The working process was liberating for these young designers who had become disenthralled from the demands for minimalist ‘good taste’. Breaking every rule, all styles, colours, decorations and forms fell under their purview. Unburdened by the need for their work to be intelligent, practical or even well-designed, the group flourished and experimented with unconventional materials such as printed glass, celluloid and glitter.

By September 1981, when Jasper Morrison, Sir Terence Conran and the design world were introduced to Memphis at the Arc ’74 showroom, the group had developed a cohesive language of boldly coloured laminates, gaudy patterns and formal appropriations that became the movement’s signature.

Patterns by Nathalie Du Pasquier, a later addition to The Memphis Group

Patterns by Nathalie Du Pasquier, a later addition to The Memphis Group

With the fervent support of Radice, who drafted up press releases for the group, news of the Memphis collection spread quickly, causing a commotion through the international media. Some attendees of the Arc ’74 showcase praised it as a welcome reprieve from the dull, pragmatic and Bauhaus minimalism that had dominated furniture design for much of the 20th century. Memphis found immediate success and, over the next seven years, the group produced a slew of bold and distinctly colourful furniture pieces that have become all but synonymous with 1980s postmodernism.

Designers set firmly in the tenants of modernism, however, dismissed the work as absurd. Memphis was, “funny, peculiar and rather like the emperor’s new clothes,” said Conran. “It was not to be taken seriously.”[iv] Many criticised the movement for its lack of taste, over the top excessiveness and what was often read as a sense of insincerity and visual irony.

Memphis quickly became a household name, however, spreading out beyond the design community. The work aligned well with the general post-punk image of the early 1980s. It was the perfect blend of pop art, humour and postmodern theory to captivate a wide audience. Many trendsetters, like fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and architect Philip Johnson, had their homes and offices furnished in the Memphis style. American architect Michael Graves, Javier Mariscal from Spain, and Arata Isozaki and Shiro Kuramata from Japan joined their ranks adding an international appeal. There were shows and collections around the world from London, to Los Angeles, to Tokyo and back to Milan. The showrooms filled with playfully bright pieces and a young international audience made Memphis so photogenic that a media frenzy naturally followed. Its flamboyance made it particularly well-suited for magazine covers.

The fame and easy to follow formula of vibrant colours, plus striking forms, plus eclectic patterns spurred countless knock-offs around the world, most of which were executed very poorly. The Memphis Group became wholly mediatised. By 1985, Sottsass, after becoming disillusioned with the attention and success, decided to leave the group. “Acclaimed as a symbol and persecuted like a rock star,” Barbara Radice recalled that “far from feeling satisfaction or pleasure, [Sottsass] sank into the worst crisis of his life.” Sottsass did not like the fame and did not take the criticism of being insincere well. Far from irony, Sottsass believed that the Memphis Group represented a ‘new international style’, in which everyday objects could be imbued with a greater significance by being connected to a larger awareness of history and culture. Without the heart of the movement, Memphis disbanded a few years after.

Today, interest in the Memphis Group has been renewed as a new generation of designers and artists, detached from the controversies and mixed readings of the work, draw upon it for inspiration. In 2011, fashion design house Christian Dior presented a Memphis Group derived Fall/Winter collection that followed the formula of brightly coloured, oddly juxtaposed geometries and pattern clashes. Collectors have also given the work a second glance. Now vintage pieces like Peter Shire’s geometric assemblage teapots or John Lewis’ cast glass sculptural tables sell in auction houses for thousands. In 2009, Marc Newson’s elegantly sculptured metal Lockheed Lounge chair sold for £1.1 million.

In 2011, 30 years after all the initial commotion surrounding the Arc ’74 debut, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London held a retrospective of the Memphis Group’s oeuvre along with the work of other postmodernists. Their work is now being recognised as one of the latest, if not the last manifestation of the avant-garde. The Memphis Group liberated design from the single narrative and oppressively exclusive principles of modernism, which had become boring by the 1980s. They were the last great force of opposition that broke all the rules and crossed all the lines.

Despite the ample time for reconciliation, “postmodernism is still a volatile subject for many people,” said Jane Pavitt, the co-curator of the V&A exhibit. Many still regard the work as disingenuous, ironic and superficial. Its emphasis on visual sensuousness is often discredited as merely placatory to the media. Pavitt defended postmodernism and the Memphis Group, saying, “In its most exuberant phase, it was a provocative call for diversity and plurality in the arts, and society as a whole.”[v] Its superficial and so-called ironic pastiche reflected the globalised, overly mediated world that it embraced.

Today, it sometimes appears that the pendulum has swung against the direction of the Memphis Group and the 1980s postmodernist. The 1990s minimalist movement all but obliterated the whimsical and colourful Memphis aesthetic. Now architects and designers fill blogs with images of sleek forms in shades of white. ArchDaily and Dwell toss around the term ‘modern’ as if the 1980s never happened. Apple releases a new streamline product every year that’s slightly thinner and a little shinier than the previous model. No one criticises these neo-modern designs for being ironic or disingenuous, but are they any less superficial? While less iconoclastic than Memphis perhaps, what is much of design today but the cannibalisation of a historic movement trimmed of its theoretical gristle?

Unlike the Memphis Group, today we appropriate without even acknowledging it. The deeper connection with history and marginalised culture that the Memphis Group tried to imbue in their work is now just a Google search away. So, we consume the past out of sheer habit, or possibly because we cannot find a new vanguard to explore. If Memphis shattered all the rules, then maybe it was the last possible manifestation of the avant-garde – are there no rules left to break or lines to cross?

Memphis’s true legacy may be the unintentional mandate it helped establish. Neo-modernist work, and really most of the work that cascades down news feeds, is not edgy or even necessarily good design, but it proliferates because it looks attractive in photographs. With all strictures absolved completely, the parameters for assessment are rarely how a design fits within an agenda or how it actually performs, but how photogenic it is. Much of the work today that attempts to be revolutionary never leaves the two-dimensional world of the screen and its superficial rendered reality. The design exists to be nothing more than an image to be liked, pinned, posted and shared on social media. Though Sottsass may have had entirely different intentions, the wake of Memphis and its rapid media success helped transform design culture into image culture, where the only rule that remains is that it has to look good in a photograph.


3 Responses

  1. Nice article on Memphis design. Preparing a museum exhibition of my collection starting this Spring in Memphis, TN at Dixon Gallery.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *