Walking In Memphis

“When I was young, all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism. It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.”
Ettore Sottsass

In a decade known for indulgence, the designs that emerged from the Memphis Group defined the boundary-pushing postmodernism of the 1980s. Reacting against the emphasis that was placed on the style and the aesthetics of form, this Anti-design movement embraced expressive qualities to undermine the purely functional value of an object. As conventional Italian design of the period was seen as the pinnacle of good taste and elegance, they wished to question these concepts of taste and ‘good design’.

While the Modernist palette consists mainly of black, whites and greys; Anti-design introduced visual exaggeration, with striking colour palettes on materials such as plastic and laminates. Instead of the integrity of the material’s properties, they embraced ornamentation and decoration in haphazard arrangements. The function of these designs was to subvert the way you thought about the object, shifting the conversation from production to the consumer, and what an object can bring to your life.

Like all movements, one starts with a vision; and one night a group of young designers crammed into founder Ettore Sottsass’ 270-square-foot Milan apartment drinking wine and throwing wild ideas around. Applauding one another’s sketches of lamps and chairs, it was Sottsass who said, ‘This is a collection! Let’s make it.’ According to legend, he named the group Memphis after the Bob Dylan song ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again’, which had been skipping on the record player that very evening.

The movement defined the aesthetics of an entire decade. In 1981, its launch was a mass-media event at the Milan furniture fair, with people spilling out of the gallery, eager to have a look. Despite not going into major production nor being a financial success, Memphis penetrated popular culture. David Bowie was a fan, and a young Karl Lagerfeld went as far as furnishing his entire Monaco apartment with pieces from the collection.

Although Memphis had a short life span, the movement and its founder Ettore Sottsass left an undeniable impact on a new generation of designers and design enthusiasts. And, like many movements, it developed a cult following after it ceased to exist.

This was evident in 2015, when Sotheby’s held an auction of David Bowie’s Memphis Collection which included the Casablanca sideboard by Sottsass. Estimated to sell for around $5,000, the piece hammered $88,419, and the total for the entire collection was $1.68 million.

Memphis may no longer exist as a movement but its cultural force continues to inspire all elements of the design world.

Anna Grassham / Head of Modern Design