The Return of Memphis: A Visual Guide to the '80s
It was 1981 when the brilliant Ettore Sottsass founded the Memphis group in Milan, which would soon dictate the aesthetic rules for a whole decade. Today, this eclectic, colorful, and kitsch furniture is back on-trend. On one of those unpleasant winter nights in Milan in the late 1980s, Ettore Sottsass met with Michele Delucchi, AldoCibic, Marco Zanini, and Marco Zanini Matteo ThunMarcoZanini and Martine Bedin. The aim of the meetings went far beyond dinners with friends: the creatives wanted to create a movement to rebel against the status quo of modernist design (based on minimalism, functionality, and sobriety) with a bold design made of bright colors, Pop Art, extravagant shapes, art deco and kitsch art of the fifties.
On one of those nights, the talk was accompanied by Bob Dylan's famous song "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again." When it came time to find a name for the band, Sottsass suggested "Memphis," the Tennessee city and birthplace of musicians of the caliber of B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, but also the capital of ancient Egypt that took its name from the god Ptah, patron saint of craftsmen. To the surprise of its founders, the Memphis designs were enthusiastically received by designers from all over the world, so much so that most of the 40 designers who collaborated on the collection presented at the 1981 Milan Furniture Fair were foreigners: Nathalie du Pasquier from France, Michael Graves from the United States, HansHollein from Germany, Shirō Kuramata from Japan). A clear sign that the need that led to the creation of the Memphis Group was not relegated to Italy, it was a need common to many designers.
The success of Memphis was not limited to the designer niche of the time: on the contrary, as Alberto Bianchi Albrici, owner of Memphis Studio since the mid-1990s, said: "Memphis broke everything". The opening of the 1981 Milan Furniture Fair had a tremendous response, to the point that "when we arrived, there was incredible traffic," Martine Bedin recalled in an interview, "...and Ettore thought it was a terrorist attack. Shortly afterward, we discovered that they were all there for us.
The 56 pieces of the first Memphis collection composed of lamps, fabrics, and furniture were very colorful, exaggerated, almost kitsch, to the limit of good taste. By overturning all the laws of modernist design led by Mies Van Der Rohe, the designers created one of the first examples of postmodernism. Functionality came second; materials were poor (such as plastic laminate and Venetian terrazzo) and aesthetics irreverent. As if that were not enough, in a play on words and irony, the furniture was named after the most famous luxury hotels in the world: the Carlton bookshelf, the Casablanca cabinet, the Plaza table.
The most enthusiastic Memphis musicians David Bowie and designer Karl Lagerfeld, whose collections sold at Sotheby's in 2016 and 1991, respectively. While they were hugely successful, curiously, the furniture was not. The designs never made it into homes. Only one piece was ever produced industrially, but they did something far more extraordinary: they shaped the aesthetic of the 1980s, an influence that in recent decades has never been achieved so blatantly by a specific movement.
The explosive recipe of Memphis that would upset the world of design has all the typical ingredients of the aesthetics of those years: bright colors, strange patterns, geometric shapes, and a lot of "kitsch." Although the group disbanded in 1988, Ettore Sottsass had left three years earlier, fearing that Memphis would mark him for life: "It's a phenomenon born of cultural and political needs that no longer exist," he said, "there are moments when something happens, and then it's over. Enough.
Despite its short life, the influence of the Memphis Group has never been completely exhausted, and in recent years, it has made a strong comeback. It is in the spotlight thanks to the rise in interest in Italian design and the revaluation of the 80s, which curiously have always been considered the emblem of bad taste, but which are highly valued on the auction market because there are only a few units. Nevertheless, memphis and the 80s refuse to disappear.