November 12, 2018

 The 1980s was the decade that taste forgot and out of it came The Memphis Group, a collective of designers founded by Italian architect Ettore Sottsass, which flourished for almost the entire decade, and still influences designers today. 

The Group’s design ethos encompassed an almost free-for-all scramble of Pop Art, kitsch and futurism expressed in bold primary colour, unapologetically chunky geometric shapes and quirky, undisciplined squiggles. Everyday objects became an opportunity for unrestricted playtime for designers of all kinds.

The work of The Memphis Group split the design world. Designers either loved it or loathed it.  Fans saw it as exciting, rebellious and a protest against the sleek complacency and utilitarian functionality of mid-century and 1970s design. Some saw it more as a statement rather than a design movement built to last, a middle finger up at the status quo. Its dynamism attracted creative originals like Karl Lagerfeld and David Bowie, who collected it avidly. Its detractors described it as ugly, garish and impractical, the unholy lovechild of an explosion in a paint factory and the building blocks of a giant stupid baby.

A riot of colour and shape

One thing you can’t accuse The Memphis Group of is holding back. Unafraid of solid secondaries, eyeball-searing acid brights and don’t-care-if-it-doesn’t-match tones, its use of colour was never understated. Shapes can be angular, fluid or just-plain-weird, defying the conventions of traditional furniture forms. Collector Dennis Zanone’s living room demonstrates perfectly the bold colours and strong shapes at the core of Memphis design.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Zanone, under Creative Commons licence.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Zanone, under Creative Commons license.

 

The Group didn’t stop at redefining traditional furniture forms. It created new kinds of furniture the world didn’t know it needed. Masanori Umeda’s 1981 ‘Tawaraya’ Conversation Pit may not have been practical (how do you get your beer to the central table without tripping over the ropes?) nor comfy (if fully occupied) but it was certainly fun and brought the playground inside. What’s not to love about this?

Photo courtesy of Dennis Zanone, under Creative Commons licence.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Zanone, under Creative Commons license.

 

Despite folding in the late 1980s, the Memphis Group has retained some influence, especially amongst designers who were starting out in the 1980s. 

Contemporary styling with a pop of Memphis

We can still enjoy The Memphis Group’s playful quirkiness (or serious rebellion, depending on your point of view) today through the designs of Kartell, Starck and others.

Kartell’s Ettore Sottsass Calice Vase is a simple and effective way to inject a little Memphis Group pizzazz without going the whole migraine-inducing nine yards.

Designed by Sottsass himself in a collaboration with Kartell in 2004, only three years before his death, this pretty little starter vase belongs to the ""Kartell goes Sottsass - A Tribute to Memphis” collection, launched in 2015.  

Echoing the shape, but softer, is the Pilastro Stool, for a bolder statement:

For a pared-down classic feel that still retains an essence of The Memphis Group, Emeco’s Nine-0 Swivel Armchair - designed by Sottsass and named for the age he was when he designed it - is lifted by a pop of colour on the seat and a quirky, decidedly untraditional back. 

 

Verner Panton’s 1959 Heart Chair anticipated The Memphis Group’s dalliance with Pop Art with its bright colour, non-traditional shape and fun playfulness. 

 

The Memphis Group never played safe, and that’s a good thing. Its demonstration of creative courage is inspiring and uplifting, whatever you think of the result. 

 

Do you love it or hate it? Let us know what you think? 

Please leave comments and share images on our Instagram or Facebook pages.

 

 

 

Louise Etheridge
Louise Etheridge


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