History of Design [ PD ] – Memphis & Postmodernism

The Memphis movement is characterized by the aesthetics of the Memphis Group, an Italian postmodern design collective. (Artsy.net.) Despite its name, the movement originated from Milan, Italy where Ettore Sottsass founded the Group in December 1981. (Feroleto, 2010) He gathered several other Italian designers, architects, and writers who all shared the same ideals, to discuss and redefined the Modernist-dominated 20th century design principles. The term ‘Memphis’ came from the Bob Dylan song – “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, that played during that first meeting.

The Bauhaus and Modernism movement preached about form after function, stripping design to its bare minimum to create timeless beauty and as renowned architect Mies Van De Rohe states, “less is more”. However, according to Sottsass, “Functionalism is not enough. He felt that design should be sensual and exciting”. (Howarth, 2015) The Memphis Group viewed the Modernist’s minimalist approach to be void of personality, individualism or to put it simple, lifeless; in Robert Venturi’s words – “less is bore”. (Bisset, 2013)

Memphis members were sick of the uniformity and strictures of contemporary design and worked to redevelop a new way, inspired from previous movements such as Art Deco and Pop Art, as well as 1950s Kitsch styles and futuristic themes. (Bisset, 2013) Freed from the rules of Modernism, the Memphis members became open to experimentation; playing with every element possible. They wanted to bring back fun and excitement into design and first presented their ideas at the 1981 Milan Furniture Fair, in a display of preposterous-looking furnishings that mocked the presentations of ‘Good Design’, modernist’s functional approach. (Bisset, 2013) Memphis was hated at first, being described as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”. (Howarth, 2015)

Memphis Design furniture and home goods

The distinct characteristics of the Memphis Group include bright colours, Kitsch styling and geometric forms. The playful design language clearly manifested their aim with the use of bold expressive texture, colour, unorthodox shapes and contrasting materials. (Scott, 2017) Other than creating cartoonish, wacky and whimsical appearance, the Memphis members also favoured the use of ‘inappropriate’ and cheap materials, especially plastic laminates for its ‘lack of culture’. (Feroleto, 2010) The vibrancy, eccentricity and ornamentation opposed the modernist ideals; breaking the barriers between high and low-class design. (Feroleto, 2010)

The Memphis movement also made design more flexible, revolving around change as Sottsass left the group in 1986 stating that the only way for a design group to keep evolving was for its principal members to leave. (Bisset, 2013) This attitude for constant transformation resonated best in the 60s when the post-war baby boom after the second world war led to an unprecedented number of teenagers and young adults in the 1960s. The sudden hike in younger population meant potential new audience and business opportunities for the fashion and media industry, who turned to the art world, seeking ideas to attract the attention of these youths. (International School History, 2015)

The Pop Art movement was known for its use of bright colours, bold forms, plastic and repetition. Pop artists were inspired by mass consumerism, popular culture and explosions of popular prints that attracted the youth market. Prior to the Memphis movement, Pop artists emphasized on fun, change, variety, irreverence and disposability; openly questioning the precepts of ‘good design’, rejecting modernism and its values. They too favoured low cost, poor quality materials which followed their idea of expendability over durability; aiming to blur the boundaries of fine art and commercial art.

Blow inflatable armchair , 1967, PVC, Paolo Lomazzi 

Pop Art being at its peak in the 1960s, brought about the loud and boldness of that period; claiming to be cheap, pop and instant. With the industrial revolution’s third comeback, came a big market of ready-to wear clothing from more efficient mass production and new synthetic materials from the inventions of new technology; clothing became cheaper and more affordable for the masses. (Galliano, 2003) Other than that, futuristic ideas were also marketed to excite the young people, killing off the “rules” of the 50s as designers began to create scandalous new styles. (Galliano, 2003)

This era of peace was accompanied by its own chaos. As baby boomers were the first post war generation, they were allowed better education, mobility and independence which fuelled their self-confidence that resulted in their defiant attitude. (International School History, 2015) More people were able to enrol into universities, getting higher education and becoming increasingly aware of social issues around the world such as war and starvation. (International School History, 2015) Globalization and music spread word of freedom and when the Vietnam war began, these idealistic youths reacted very strongly creating social discourse that we now call the Student Movement.

Students all around the world went on strikes, some dropped out to protest passively; forming the hippie culture. While others challenged the universities’ authority, reformed the rules and took over their schools to promote, freedom, revolution and a better future. The radical changes preached by the Student movement inspired many other campaigns such as the consumer revolution, workers rebellion, black identity, environmental movement, women’s rights, lgbt etc. (International School History, 2015)

In tandem with the Pop art movement was the Anti-design movement, also referred to as the radical design period. Just like all other postmodern design movements, Anti-design was a reaction against modernist ideals; recognizing it as glorified mass production. The anti-design movement is identified by their use of strong colours, distortion of scale and their iconic use of irony and Kitsch to undermine the functionality of an object. (Martinique, 2016) Anti-design was made to be featured pieces, more than just function as they were meant to be enjoyed. (Martinique, 2016)

Occurring in 1960s Italy, anti-design ran along side with the revolution led by the student movement. In 1968, student protestors and workers disrupted the Milan Triennale, demanding better rights and higher standards of living. The social discourse raised questions for designers who fed on consumer culture, resulting in contradicting socio-cultural twist in their designs. They were influenced by the revolution to ponder and weigh the purity and functional value of a product, asking what constitutes as ‘good’ taste and design? As such, many anti-design products were transformable, including owners to participate in the design as the designs are flexible and can change in shape; for example, stackable chairs. Function can be illegible, and form could be recycled. (Martinique, 2016)

Like the pop art movement, anti-design rebelled against modernism by making disposable products, following the come-and-go trends. This ‘instant’ culture would mean more consumerism and anti-designers wanted to subvert the way consumers thought about a product. (Martinique, 2016) Why should durable pieces be superior? Anti-designers felt that objects should be temporary, quick to be replaced by something more functional. (Moffat, 2011)

Though Sottsass was the spokesman for the radical period, Alessandro Mendini, another member of the Memphis group, had also made significant contributions to the anti-design movement. He joined Studio Alchimia in 1976, promoting balanced design with aesthetic contemplation and meaning. They experimented with alternative design and intellectual approaches – Re-design and Banal design. Re-design was to convey humour, value and meaning, applied through decoration. While Banal Design addresses the intellectual and cultural void perceived in mass production. This approach began new interest for semiotics within the design community.

Sacco Chair, 1968 

In conclusion, the Memphis movement was the more exaggerated version of the anti-design movement. It was a combination of all post-modernist movements before it; mostly inspired from the 1960s. Design is rooted deep in the ideas of humanity, a surge in social reform can spur changes in all artforms, all events interconnected. The Sacco chair by architect Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini, Franco Teodoro is the perfect example. Since they were architects, they wanted to incorporate ideas form architecture into product design; designing a chair to be as flexible as possible to adapt to different situations, using mouldable materials. They chair, made in 1968, clearly reflected era’s politics, a rebellious piece in the face of the 1920s modernist classics. (McNairn, 2013)

(1260 words)


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Howarth, D. (2015). Postmodernism in design: Carlton bookcase by Ettore Sottsass. [online] Dezeen. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2015/08/03/ettore-sottsass-memphis-group-carlton-storage-unit-tahiti-lamp-postmodernism/ [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].

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Marshall, C. (2016). Meet the Memphis Group, the Bob Dylan-Inspired Designers of David Bowie’s Favorite Furniture. [online] Open Culture. Available at: http://www.openculture.com/2016/10/memphis-group-the-bob-dylan-inspired-designers-of-david-bowies-favorite-furniture.html [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].

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McNairn, L. (2013). The original Sacco beanbag – very cool design. [online] Inside the Collection. Available at: https://maas.museum/inside-the-collection/2013/09/23/the-original-sacco-beanbag-very-cool-design/ [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].

Moffat, C. (2011). Anti-Design – The Art History Archive. [online] Arthistoryarchive.com. Available at: http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/antidesign/ [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].

Scott, H. (2017). The Return of Postmodern Design & the Memphis Group | Chandelier Creative. [online] Chandelier Creative. Available at: https://www.chandeliercreative.com/article/the-return-of-post-modern-design-and-the-memphis-group [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].

Image References

A collection of objects by Memphis. (2011). [image] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memphis_Group#/media/File:Memphis-Milano_Movement.jpg [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].

Anon, (n.d.). [image] Available at: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/446278644317705441/?lp=true [Accessed 10 Sep. 2018].

Sacco Chair. (2013). [image] Available at: https://maas.museum/inside-the-collection/2013/09/23/the-original-sacco-beanbag-very-cool-design/ [Accessed 8 Sep. 2018].