The Memphis Group’s design style is unmistakable. The output of the short-lived, divisive design collective, which debuted at the Milan furniture fair in 1981 and closed shop six years later, embodied the garish appeal of the decade that style forgot. Their furniture was colorful, kitschy and exaggerated. They stacked slanted rows of cheap plastic laminates and called it a bookshelf. The group – led by founder Ettore Sottsass – decided that geometric shapes made great table legs, and that black-and-white stripes totally worked with lemon-yellow circles.
Over the course of the 80s, the signature clash of busy patterns and synthetic materials pervaded every aspect of popular culture. From a young Karl Lagerfeld’s chic Monaco apartment to pale imitations in the form of screen-printed Esprit sweatshirts and MTV graphics – Memphis was unavoidable. Back to the Future II’s vision of the new millennium was directly influenced by the group and their designs served as the inspiration for the Max diner from Saved By the Bell.
The Met Breuer’s new exhibition Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical cuts through the glare of 80s DayGlo to focus on Memphis, the philosophy. It charts the movement’s origins through its founder’s 60-year career, presenting Memphis not as a passing fad, but the culmination of one man’s decades-long mission of creating a more spiritual approach to design. “The Memphis Group’s main goal was to create objects that appealed to you on an emotional level,” says the Met Breuer curator Christian Larsen.
Sottsass came of age in Italy during its postwar reconstruction, a period fertile for cultural reinvention and rethinking of the human condition. In 1956, he worked briefly in New York under George Nelson, the poster child for modernism’s slick rejection of decorative traditions in favor of rational, industrialized design. While in America, Sottsass was impressed by the technology of scale of mass production and its ability to provide for the entire population – but he was also appalled by the sameness of suburbia. “He was blown away by mass production,” says Larsen. “It was very democratic in a sense, but he found this culture of cookie-cutter suburban houses a bit too homogenous, and in the end, alienating.”
In 1961, he traveled to India and got his worldview realigned (two years before his friend Allen Ginsberg and seven before the Beatles). There’s a clear line to be drawn between Memphis pattern and the architecture of southern India, but it was the people’s wholly different attitude towards material possessions that made the greatest impact on his work. “People lived with objects not because of inherent monetary value or advanced technology, but because they represented something spiritual and ritualized,” says Larsen. “He starts to shift the conversation from production to the consumer, and what an object can bring to your life.”
It wasn’t until the 80s that Sottsass’s postmodern vision finally penetrated popular culture. In 1981, having recently parted ways with another radical Italian design group, Studio Alchimia, which was founded by his friend and rival Alessandro Mendini, Sottsass brought together a group of young designers whose international roster included future superstars, among them Michele de Lucchi, Shiro Kuramata, Hans Hollein, and Michael Graves. (According to legend, he named the collective Memphis after a Bob Dylan song that had been skipping on the record player.)
His new troupe had a rockstar sensibility about it, and shocked the design world when Memphis premiered its first collection of clocks, lamps, tables and TVs at Milan’s annual furniture fair, Salone del Mobile. “An effervescent, seductive and undeniably sympathetic group, it appalled some and amused others but put everyone attending the fair in a state of high excitement,” the New York Times reported. Approaching the crowds that gathered outside the fair and queued to see the collective’s work, Sottsass reportedly thought that a bomb had gone off.
For a newly prosperous society primed to embrace high and low aesthetics, garishness, synthetics and the melodrama of Miami Vice, Sottsass had finally found the right audience. “People were hungry for color again,” says Marc Benda of Friedman Benda, a Manhattan gallery that’s shown Sottsass’s work since 2003. The party was short-lived. While Memphis triumphed culturally, its high prices and impractical forms failed commercially. “Compared to the event itself, Memphis sales were negligible,” designer Marco Zanini recalled in 1989. “The simplest thing was to walk out and close it down.” Sottsass left the group in 1985, and it officially disbanded in 1988. Karl Lagerfeld sold his collection at Sotheby’s in 1991, but despite some high profile fans such as Sofia Coppola, by the late 90s Memphis’s afterglow had faded.
Sottsass, however, had continued success. Before his death in 2007, his design consultancy, Sottsass Associati, completed a number of colorfully postmodernist architectural projects. He hated the idea of being remembered for Memphis. “Memphis is a phenomenon that arose out of cultural and political necessities that are no longer,” he said. “There are moments when something happens, and then it’s over. Basta.’’ But the group’s impact is still felt today.
For the generations afterward, Sottsass made it possible for young designers to “understand what emotional approach creates iconic design”, according to Job Smeets, founder of the irreverent Antwerp-based Studio Job, whose work is included in the Met Breuer show as an illustration of Sottsass’s legacy.
Memphis has regained its footing as a cultural force in the last ten years, resurfacing as the apparent inspiration for a 2011 Christian Dior runway collection and a seemingly endless supply of hip throw pillows, crop tops, and uncomfortable-looking chairs. In 2014, the former Memphis member Nathalie Du Pasquier was tapped to design an American Apparel collection and this year her work inspired a furniture collection for the US manufacturer West Elm. Alessandro Mendini, who contributed to the first Memphis show, designed a set of skateboards for the streetwear brand Supreme in 2016. Last November, Sotheby’s three-day auction of David Bowie’s Memphis collection made £1.3m ($1.68m), and BMW created a series of cars celebrating the group.
Dedicated Instagram accounts have breathed new life into Memphis for the committed fans and the curious, while exhibitions, including the Met Breuer’s and Peter Shire’s recent show at MoCA, mean Memphis is part of the contemporary conversation once again. “I thought Memphis may have died,” says Larsen. “It comes back into fashion every so often because it has that spirit of rebellion and freedom. It’s meant to scream at you. It celebrates diversity and the unorthodox. But Sottsass said it himself: it’s just like candy. Too much can make you sick.”
Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical is at the Met Breuer, New York, from 21 July to 8 October
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