“I am a designer and I want to design things.” – Ettore Sottsass
When Alabama Chanin started our MAKESHIFT conversation nearly three years ago, inspiration came from several places and sources. The core idea was, and still is, that through the gathering of like-minded folks (writers, designers, thinkers, artisans, creators) we could elaborate on the simple act of making—and find the point where design, craft, art, fashion, food, and DIY intersect.
The conversation at the first MAKESHIFT event in 2012 began with the study and discussion of an essay by Ettore Sottsass, titled “When I Was a Very Small Boy.” The essay (which was brought to our attention by Andrew Wagner) is about the act of making and embraces the idea that when we are young, we don’t have preconceived notions about what or how to make; we just do. And by doing, we learn. During MAKESHIFT, in keeping with the Sottsass essay, we embraced the act of working outside out of our comfort zones to try something new. By doing so, we can evolve together—by exploring, not thinking or judging.
Our On Design series allows us to have MAKESHIFT-based discussions on a local, community-based level—translated here. March’s On Design lecture was titled “1980 + The Memphis Group” and focused heavily on the work of Sottsass and his partner and fellow Memphis member, Barbara Radice. During my own design training, I began to study and follow the work of Sottsass—including his achievements with the Memphis Group during the 1980s. Sottsass founded the design collaborative in Milan, Italy. Barbara Radice elaborates on the group’s beginnings in this interview with Phaidon.com:
You should not imagine that we would sit around and actually talk about “the future of design”. There was a necessity of updating figurative language because what was around, as Ettore used to say, after a while felt like chewing cardboard. So you need a little mustard, don’t you? We were talking about life, and design was part of it. That is why they (the designs) were so intense and bright.
The name, Memphis, was a nod to the Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” which played over and over again on Sottsass’ record player the night of the group’s first gathering. ‘Memphis’ came up over and over again and everyone thought it was a great name.
As one of Italy’s revered architects, Ettore Sottsass was said to be the veteran of the group alongside Radice. Sottsass led the group of young furniture and product designers in the collaborative’s experimental and unconventional practices. Members (including Aldo Cibic, Martine Bedine, Michele De Lucchi, George Sowden, Michael Graves, and Nathalie du Pasquier) produced and exhibited their bold creations throughout most of the decade, dominating the 1980s design scene. (Sottsass left the group in 1985 and the short-lived group disbanded in 1988.)
Memphis Design is most often categorized as part of the Postmodern movement, which is a rather broad theory and complicated to define. There is no clear stylistic consistency or theme that holds Postmodern works together—rather it is most often described by what it is not. The simplest description of the movement is a collision of diverse points of view that reimagines a past (frequently modern in style)—often with wit and humor. Postmodern is a reaction to or against a previous style. In art, Postmodern works include everything from multimedia, conceptual, intermedia, installation, video, collage, and bricolage, to appropriation, graffiti, and performance art. Generally, Postmodernism strives to break the barrier between fine, high, or primary design and arts and low, or secondary, art and design and popular culture.
Memphis fell squarely into this idea of re-imagination. There was no set formula or school of learning for the postmodern designs being produced by Memphis, though they were obviously influenced by Pop Art, Art Deco, and other movements. They did not work under the notion that good design had to be lasting design. “It is no coincidence that the people who work for Memphis don’t pursue a metaphysic aesthetic idea or an absolute of any kind, much less eternity,” said Sottsass. “Today everything one does is consumed. It is dedicated to life, not to eternity.”
But the design world did not exactly greet Postmodernism with open arms. Memphis was oft critiqued—even loathed—by many in the design world. The designs were bright and striking, and boasted pops of color and unconventional materials, unapologetically. Memphis was flamboyant, anti-establishment, a variant of fashion. You can find references to this work that became irrefutably 1980s design, film, and music: New Wave Music, MTV, The Talking Heads, Madonna, PeeWee’s Playhouse, and so many, many more.
It was a movement you were either for, or against. There was no middle ground with Postmodernism and Memphis. It was the epitome of 1980s style. The colors and the geometric shapes of the designs complimented the fashion of the decade. It was design, but it was also pop culture—at the height of Pop Culture.
Sottsass left the Memphis Group in 1985, a few years before its end in 1988, and at the height of its fame. Today, the philosophy behind the movement holds more weight and inspiration, in my opinion, than the designs that came from it. What Memphis and the Postmodernist movement did was inspire a decade of design that manifested across the globe, spread quickly by the invention of the video camera, the prolific music videos of MTV, and the quickly growing availability to a wide variety of media. Memphis and Postmodern furniture and design is finding its way back into design today, much like the resurgence of Mid-Century Modern designs. (A Post-Postmodernist Movement?) There is always something new to be derived from something old; there are challenges to overcome and taboos to be crushed; there is nothing wrong with moving forward boldly and pushing yourself to create and to make, without preconceived notions. The work of Ettore Sottsass, Barbara Radice, and the Memphis Group is an example of pushing boundaries and challenging design norms to create something completely unique.