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Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the impact that the work of the Memphis Group continues to have on the design world.
The inspiration for the name came from a Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” According to legend, this song was played repeatedly at the first meeting of the Group, organized by Ettore Sottsass. It was December 11, 1980, and invitees included a handful of other like-minded young Italian designers, such as Michele de Lucchi and Matteo Thun. (It has also been suggested that the name also refers to the ancient cultural capital of Egypt as well as Elvis’ birthplace. This is just conjecture, of course.)
The 1970s were awash in Post-Bauhaus minimalism. (This was minimalism taken to the extreme; let’s call it…minimalist minimalism.) The result was a design world stuck on creating black, nondescript and fairly humorless products. Ettore Sottsass and his young proteges sought to change all that, and to reinvigorate the Radical Design movement that had stalled in the late ’70s. So at that first meeting, another rather radical philosophy was adopted. Their designs would be the exact opposite of the norm: loud, colorful and geometrically improbable.
With that, the very height of the Postmodern design movement began. After their initial get-together, the collaborative reconvened in February to go over their design sketches. There were hundreds. They blended Art Deco and Pop Art influences with materials like glossy laminate usually reserved for kitchen countertops. And the colors! A more dazzling display you would never see.
When the Group rolled out their wild array of furniture and lighting at the 1981 Salon De Mobile in Milan, the reaction to it was either red-hot or so cold as to be nearly hypothermic. On the one hand, the idea of putting form before function chafed certain design veterans (and what forms they were!), while others loved the freedom of expression, the ironic sense of humor and willingness to experiment with known forms.
The Memphis Group is the ideal example of what can happen with design that comes at the most fortuitous moment possible, both meeting and influencing the expectations of the era in which it was conceived. The ’80s were all about pop culture and rock and roll and sticking it to the establishment. Disco was dead, and rebellious punks with their neon-colored mohawks were clamoring for something new and exciting and shocking. In other words, it was prime time for the Memphis Group.
Their look moved far beyond furniture into architecture, art (Patrick Nagel), music (the album cover for Duran Duran’s “Rio” comes immediately to mind) and even fashion. If there could be something identifiable as the ’80s “look,” it would be the aesthetic established by the Memphis Group.
Sottsass dismantled the Memphis Group in 1988. While the movement was, by design, short-lived, it had the ripple-effect Sottsass had been looking for. Designers since have embraced the freedom that the Memphis Group espoused. They willingly adopt the mindset of seeing things differently and are not so easily constrained by what’s expected or “normal.”