Memphis is a movement which took place during the postmodernism period. Inspired by a few converging similar movements such as Art Deco, Pop Art, Op Art, Anti-design and the emerging postmodernism which would come to pervade everything from furniture to film to music. Despite its name, the movement begun in Milan, Italy. It is distinguished by the aesthetics of Memphis Group, an Italian Postmodern design collective founded by Ettore Sottsass in 1981. The signature of Memphis piece combined geometric shapes from an array of materials in funky bright, contrasting colours. It was a remarkable departure from the underrated modernist design that had been in trend for decades. Their first work was formally introduced at the 1981 Milan Furniture Fair, an outrageous display of furnishings mocking the presentations of ‘Good Designs’. Later in 1986, Sottsass left the group with a thought that the group will evolve once its principal members leave. Though the Memphis group disbanded after a mere seven years, their legacy had left a powerful impact in design world. The designs that emerged from the Memphis Group had defined the boundary-pushing postmodernism of the ’80s.
Back to the 60s, it was a decade of revolutionary change which was mainly due to the baby boomers and their student movement. The media and design industries started to cater to this new audience. They drew ideas from within the art world to attract attention. A few emerging movements began to influence how Memphis style is later formed. Memphis style has been described as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”. The main key characteristics of their playful design includes the use of bold expressive texture, unorthodox shapes and contrasting materials which results to a cartoonish, wacky and whimsical appearance. Memphis movement is inspired by the bold geometric forms of Art Deco, the colour palette of Pop Art. Pop art (1958-1972) was originated in United States and United Kingdom. It is inspired by mass consumerism, popular culture and explosions of popular prints. They place emphasis on fun, change, variety, irreverence and disposability. Pop Art openly questioned the law of good design, rejecting modernism and its values. It is cheap and often poor quality which favoured expendability over durability. These values of Pop Art can be seen in Memphis style.
Besides Pop Art, Op Art (1965-1973) was one of the key inspirations of Memphis style. The characteristics of Op Art is that they put a strong emphasis on geometrical abstraction and repetition of pattern and lines. First, they started off in black and white and then began to transit in vibrant colour, making use of both positive and negative spaces. Anti-Design movement also came about in the 60s, in 1966. It was originated in Italy, also known as the Radical Design. They embraced exaggerated and expressive qualities to derail the functional value of an object. Ettore Sottsass Jr. was a key spokesman of the Anti-Design movement. He later became one of the key founding members of Memphis movement. The characteristics of anti-design are vibrant colours, unusual form and design and the use of irony and kitsch. These characteristics would later become the hallmarks of Postmodern design and then influence Memphis design.
Postmodernism was originated in Italy. It is a broad movement that emerged in the 1960s, become prominent in the late 1970s/1980s and remained a dominant force till today. The movement largely has been a reaction against the simplicity and structural design approach of the modern architecture and international style. This movement emerge after World War II as a backlash to the perceived failings of modernism. Some graphic design styles that emerged in the postmodernist era were New Wave Typography including the Italian Memphis Group. Postmodern design did not consist of one unified graphic style, the movement was an expressive and playful time for designers. Recently there is a comeback of Memphis Design in 2005 and 2006 in fashion, ceramic, sculpture, graphic. After Ettore’s death in 2007, interest in Memphis design was re-awakened in a big way. A founding member of the group, Nathalie Du Pasquier — designed a collection of patterns for American Apparel 2014 collection. This marks an indication that Memphis style is back.
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