smow blog Design Calendar: September 18th 1981- Inaugural Memphis Exhibition, Milan

Celebrated as the salvation of design. Denounced as kitsch. Fresh & invigorating. Vain & hifalutin. A watershed in design history. A passing fad.

There are few architecture and design movements that divided opinion quite as much as the works of the Italian group Memphis.

Or indeed which continue to divide opinion more than thirty years after their emergence.

Although officially launched with an exhibition at the Arc ’74 gallery in Milan on Friday September 18th 1981 Memphis can trace its origins back to the 1960s, or as the group’s founder and leading protagonist Ettore Sottsass puts it, “Memphis itself is the result of 10 years of anti-design, of more or less politically coloured discussions.”1

Born in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1917 Ettore Sottsass studied architecture at the Politecnico di Torino before moving to Milan in 1946 where he established his own architecture and design practice from where, amongst other projects, he worked with the INA-CASA post-war rebuilding programme, contributed to the several Milan Triennales and developed numerous art and craft projects. In 1956 Ettore Sottsass travelled to America where he spent three months working with George Nelson in his New York studio, three months that were to change his perception about what design is and can be. “I was very much impressed by America I must say, because it was clear that America was in the middle of an intellectual revolution – an industrial revolution particularly”, Sottsass later recalled in an interview with Icon Magazine, before adding the all important qualifier, “because in Italy we didn’t have the idea of industry.”2 On his return from New York Ettore Sottsass set about changing that, as most famously exemplified by his collaborations with the Italian office and telecommunications company Olivetti. Much like George Nelson’s cooperations with IBM, Sottsass used intelligent, contemporary, and for all corporate and systems, design, to transform an otherwise uninspiring, beige, conglomerate into a by-word for sophisticated, cosmopolitan grace. In addition to Olivetti the 1960s saw Ettore Sottsass cooperate with companies as varied as Poltrona Frau, Raymor or Arredoluce.

Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, it was to be Ettore Sottsass’s best known Olivetti product, the 1969 Valentine portable typewriter, which saw him move away from product design and towards anti-design.

In 1961 Sottsass had travelled to India where, and very much as with those who would later travel the so-called Hippie Trail through Central Asia, his experiences caused him to question the nature of western, European, society and for all deeply affected his understanding of objects, possessions and the meaning of both. Thus parallel to his work with Olivetti Sottsass developed more abstract projects, principally ceramics, and projects through which he explored not only new form languages but also new ways of relating to those objects which surround us and in which he questioned the idea of consumerism. These parallel, and contradictory, creative paths finally diverged in 1969 when Sottsass realised that with the Valentine Olivetti wanted something cheap and cheerful, throwaway as much as portable, and decided the time was ripe to move on from product design. Or as he later wrote in context of Memphis, “so-called “industrial design” in the general sense of the word was viewed as a service to the industry rather than to the general public. This implied that the terms were prescribed by the industry and not by the public. Our idea has been to see what would happen if we liberated ourselves from those terms, at any rate in theory.”3

As a first step on his road to liberation and Memphis Ettore Sottsass published in 1972 his pamphlet “The Planet as Festival” in which he presented various utopian futures, before going on to co-found the group “Global Tools” with some 30 fellow Radical Architecture activists, a project which aimed to “stimulate the free development of individual creativity”4 In 1977 Ettore Sottsass and Andrea Branzi were invited to design furniture for the Milanese retailer Croff Casa, a first opportunity to bring his ideas to a wider public: the resulting “Casanova” collection, according to Barbara Radice, being so radical, so free, and so liberated, that not only did customers reject it but the Croff Casa sales team refused to promote or sell it5. In the same year Sottsass and Branzi were invited to join Alessandro Guerriero and Alessandro Mendini in their post-modern Alchimia collective; however, fundamental differences between Sottsass and Mendini as to the direction the group should take caused Sottsass to leave in 1980 and subsequently establish Memphis with a group of like minded individuals.

Like minded, if younger, individuals. For while the majority of those designers and architects who participated in the inaugural Memphis exhibition were wild young things in their 20s, the movement’s figurehead was a marginally less than teenage 64 when the inaugural exhibition opened.

Who says only yoof rebel!

Just as Pop Art highlighted the mundane, unsavoury and superficial to force a break from the established art world so to did Memphis make use of banal everyday materials and bright, garish, unsavoury, colours for their attack on the dogmatic functionalism of 1970s design; an attack which was primarily expressed through the use of new, challenging, forms, unfamiliar expressions of the familiar which in the eyes of their creators reflected the current age, not ages long since gone.

Yet despite all the revolution inherent in Memphis, and the ease of popular focus on the abstract forms and bright colours, it is important to remember that the objects created by Memphis worked. They were functional. That their form didn’t follow their function was the whole point, or as Sottsass is famously quoted as having once said, “When I was young, all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism. It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.”6

In addition all Memphis products were designed to be mass produced.

At least theoretically.

From the very outset Memphis was run as a company, a company established with the aim of marketing and selling their work: despite questioning consumerism Memphis weren’t anti-commercial, and indeed throughout the 1970s Ettore Sottsass created a range of objects for Alessi. An important partner in the Memphis business was Milan based lighting producer Artemide. Shortly after the opening of the first exhibition Sottsass approached Artemide co-founder and managing director Ernesto Gismondi to request a cooperation, Gismondi readily agreed, even if from a business perspective it may have been wiser not to, as, according to Gismondi, “for several years we [Memphis] had deficits that needed to be covered by Artemide”.7

The principle reason for the deficits being that despite all their protestations of mass producible design, the majority of Memphis items were closer to art than their designers would or could admit; consequently, Memphis products were expensive and only of interest to a very limited market segment. Something perhaps best demonstrated by the Carlton room divider by Ettore Sottsass, one of the best known Memphis pieces and an object which, according to Gismondi, on account of the random nature of its construction principle and variety of component parts, simply cannot be industrially mass produced – and for which in any case only rough sketches existed, no detailed plans that the constructors could follow.

According to Gismondi there was only one vaguely, commercially, successful Memphis object: the chair First by Michele De Lucchi. However, and in words reminiscent of Heinz Rasch, for Gismondi First was only a success because it “was a chair which most resembled a chair. Michele did indeed succeed very cleverly in designing a product which was genuinely Memphis and which at the same time partly answered the needs of the market and those of the company”8

The remainder of the products answering primarily the needs of Memphis to challenge contemporary wisdom and accepted formalist standards. A fact which may explain why Memphis moved increasingly from seeing itself as an industrial project to a gallery project.

Ettore Sottsass left Memphis in 1985, and although post-Sottsass Memphis continued, and indeed continues, without its driving force it ceased to have the same relevance or vigour.

Which of course raises the obvious question, what remains of Memphis?

For most people the answer would be “the objects”.

Objects however which are invariably misinterpreted as being about the style, the physical from, rather than the background ideas; and it is those ideas that is Memphis’s most important legacy, the demonstration than one needn’t simply accept the status quo, but that if one remains true to ones ideals and can present them with a clarity and competence then one can achieve genuine change. Not necessarily change as in changing the immediate world, but change as in changing ideas, opinions and perspectives. Change as in expanding the horizon of possibilities and creating the chance of an alternative future. The works of the Memphis group may not have been commercially successful, and in all probability never will be, but that ideas and thinking that created them continue to influence designers and architects, and remain relevant components of any contemporary design discourse.

In addition Memphis, in many ways, gave us the design gallery as an institution distinct from the design museum or the art gallery. And today good design galleries still provide a platform for designers to question contemporary norms, challenge accepted standards, propose alternatives and thus continue, just as Memphis did in September 1981, to confuse, offend, delight, inspire and upset their visitors.

1. Poul ter Hofstede, Memphis 1981 – 1988, Groninger Museum, 1989

2 Justin McGuirk “Ettore Sottsass” Icon, Issue 046, April 2007 Accessed 17.09.2015

3. Poul ter Hofstede, Memphis 1981 – 1988, Groninger Museum, 1989

4. Document No. 1. The Constitution. Global Tools, No 1 Florence 1974, quoted in Hans Höger, Ettore Sottsass jun. Designer. Artist. Architect. Ernst Wasmuth Verlag, Tübingen/Berlin. 1993

5. Barbara Radice, Ettore Sottsass, Leben und Werk, Bangert Verlag, München 1993

6. Original source unknown

7. Poul ter Hofstede, Memphis 1981 – 1988, Groninger Museum, 1989

8. ibid

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