What is Memphis Design?
“Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,”
are lyrics of a Bob Dylan song that happened to be playing during the meeting of a Milan based group of artists, it is this specific line that gave this design group its name which was previously called The New Design.
Based in Milan, Italy, its members came from all over the world like America, Britain, Japan, France, etc. But a majority of the members were Italian, in fact the leader of this collective was an Italian architect, Ettore Sottsass. While he was in his 60s, the other members of the group such as Martine Bedin, Matteo Thun, Aldo Cibic and Michele De Lucchi were in their 20s. But Sottsass, backed by his partner Barbara Radice, became a key source of inspiration and guidance within Memphis.
"I am a designer and I want to design things. What else would I do? Go fishing?"
Memphis originates from the Radical design movement in Italy in the 1960s, which was born out of the need to oppose the growing minimal and practical aesthetics of modernism. Memphis and its rule breaking ideologies became the defining look of the 1980s with its post-modernist style. It became a design with virtually no limits and boundaries.They experimented with materials and forms like using laminates and Terrazzos as the surfacing materials on products, geometrics and gaudy colours, which were rarely used in furniture until then. Their pieces were fabricated out of industrial materials such as printed glass, celluloids, zinc-plated and textured sheet metals, fireflake finishes, neon tubes – jazzed up with glitter industrial paints and coloured light bulbs. Each design of the Memphis collective conveyed their unconventionality through contrasting hues and a kaleidoscope of textures and motifs drifting further and further away from the functionality of design.
"As said in an interview, “When you try to define the function of any object, the function slips through your fingers, because function is life itself. Function is not one screw more or one measure less. Function is the final possibility of the relation between an object and life.”
- Ettore Sottsass
Memphis first exhibited their work at the Milan design fair in 1981, this faux chic collection was ironically named after luxury hotels. According to the New York Times, their exhibition “appalled some and amused others but put everyone attending the fair in a state of high excitement.” Word about the group spread quickly, and its influence became widespread.
The Memphis group disbanded with its last show in 1987, only 7 years after its inception. Inevitable, since Sottsass had already broken free from Memphis two years prior in 1985. Although its existence was short-lived, it left a lasting impression on design. It impacted both pop culture and fashion with notable connoisseurs like David Bowie and designer Karl Lagerfeld. Fashion houses like Dior featured a Memphis inspired style in their 2011 haute couture collection.
The radical and abstract designs promoted by Memphis inspire us at Ruggism as well. Both our Valmier and Kandinsky Collections embody characteristics like striking patterns, bold motifs and clashing colours in synthesis with Memphis works. Check out our Kandinsky and Valmier collections here!
Fun Fact for Today’s Blog:
The musician David Bowie was an avid collector of designs by the Memphis group, managing to acquire over 100 works such as the Super Lamp and Sottsass' Carlton bookcase. After his demise in 2016, these pieces were auctioned off at Sotheby's in London.