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Memphis


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(1981–8)

This avant‐garde group of international designers was launched in Milan in 1981 with the backing of Renzo Brugola (a cabinetmaker), Ernesto Gismondi (founder of Artemide), Mario and Brunella Godani (furniture showroom owners), and Fausto Celati (an Italian industrialist). Its leading creative persona was Ettore Sottsass Jr., who had left Studio Alchimia after differences of opinion with Alessandro Mendini. With Barbara Radice as art director, he worked with a large number of internationally significant architects and designers who contributed to the large range of furniture, products, metalware, textiles, and interiors that the group created during the 1980s. These designers included Andrea Branzi, Michele De Lucchi, Nathalie Du Pasquier, Michael Graves, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, Issey Miyake, Peter Shire, George Sowden, Javier Mariscal, and Matteo Thun.

The stylistic characteristics of Memphis designs included bright colours, combinations of patterns and texture which derived from both ‘high’ and popular cultural sources, and the use of striking juxtapositions of cheap and expensive materials and finishes. Although Sottsass dubbed the work of the group as the ‘New International Style’ Memphis shared with the earlier Anti‐Design and Radical Design movement in Italy a deep‐rooted dissatisfaction with the prevalent market‐led preoccupation with elegance and ‘Good Design’ associated with Modernism and its International Style legacy. Memphis's strikingly decorative and brightly coloured design alternatives were in direct opposition to the bare minimalism of many later modernist products, whether the sleek Braun KM3 Kitchen Machine of 1957, Eliot Noyes's Selectric typewriter for IBM of 1961 or the platonic, sensuous, sculptural lines of Gio Ponti's sanitary ware for Ideal Standard of 1954. Unlike the polemical didacticism of many Italian avant‐garde groups of the 1960s and 1970s, Memphis provided a positive creative alternative to those adopted in contemporary manufacturing norms and reinvigorated the design outlook in many countries.

A gathering of designers organized by Sottsass in December 1980 provided the impetus for the group. The name of the group is said to have derived from the Bob Dylan song ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’, which was playing during the evening. The ways in which popular and ‘high’ cultural references could be evocatively combined in the same way as cheap and expensive materials might be seen as echoes of the group's dual referencing of Memphis as the capital of ancient Egypt and home of rhythm and blues in contemporary USA. Memphis met again in February 1981 to consider their collective design proposals which drew on styles as diverse as Art Deco, Pop, and Kitsch. The first Memphis exhibition was shown at the Arc ′74 Gallery in Milan in September and comprised a wide range of products that had been produced in small quantities by sympathetic manufacturers. The display included furniture, lighting, clocks, and ceramics that, in addition to the semiotic and cultural references mentioned above, often used decorative laminates that flew in the face of conventional ‘good taste’ on account of their origins in the mass‐produced furniture of everyday bar counters and tables and suburban kitchens.

Although the group was wound up by Sottsass in 1988 Memphis has been highly influential in the fields of graphic design, textiles, and furnishing fabrics, carpets, product design, and interiors. Its very fashionability, seen in countless imitations from TV game show set designs to gift wrapping paper, had diminished its original reinvigorating role and rendered it almost as commonplace as the everyday sources from which some of its patterns had been drawn. Its accessibility had been stimulated by the widespread media and design press interest engendered by the group's work when exhibited in leading museums and galleries throughout Europe, Scandinavia, North America, Japan, and elsewhere during the 1980s. Taking its place in many key permanent collections the outlook has been absorbed into the design status quo. Nonetheless, even following Sottass's departure, there were several later flourishes of the outlook including the foundation of Metamemphis in 1989 and Memphis Extra in 1991.

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Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.


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