Memphis Design: When Bad Taste Became Better Taste
When Bad Taste Became Better Taste
On December 11, 1980, in a cramped apartment in Milan, a group of designers came together to plot a revolution. The tyrant to be overthrown? Good taste. Their weapon? Something they called Memphis.
Today, the basic principles of good design are almost clichés:
- Form follows function
- Less is more
- Timeless over trendy
- Ornamentation is unnecessary
As Modernism began to spread in design, these concepts began to seem like rules in the design world.
Rules are Made to Be Broken
Just a few of the Memphis-inspired luminaires available on LightFormSHOP.com
Designer and Architect Ettore Sottsass understood and appreciated classic design, but still he longed for something more.
He began to collect like-minded individuals as collaborators and finally put them all in a room with the goal of forming their own design group.
The Memphis Group in Tawaraya Ring, 1981
The key to what Sottsass intended to call The New Design was rejecting the sacred edicts of their craft. Thus, while no trait ultimately serves to define Memphis designs, there are still several principles one finds in the group’s work:
- Form follows fun (the motto of the Memphis Group)
- More is more
- Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse
- Ornamentation is essential
The Light that Burns Twice as Bright…
The patterns, designs, and architecture that the group created were loud, brash, unapologetic, and—above all—fun.
But The New Design was far too staid a name for such a movement.
A skipping record needle resulted in Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” repeating throughout their first meeting; treating this as a sign, they dubbed themselves, and their new style, Memphis.
Concurrent with Memphis were resurgences of interest in Art Deco, Pop Art, and ‘50s-era kitsch. Memphis both benefited from and promoted these resurgences as all three (and more) were combined in the Memphis movement. Nothing was beyond Memphis’ reach, so long as it celebrated fashion, innovation, and fun.
Tawaraya Ring by Masanori Umeda, 1981
Laurel by Peter Shire, 1982
Cavalieri by Ettore Sottsass, 1981
Malabar by Ettore Sottsass, 1981
Casablanca by Ettori Sottsass, 1981
Charlotte by Martine Bedin, 1987
Examples of classic Memphis Design
…Burns Half as Long
Memphis was never intended to last. Courting style meant submitting to its capriciousness. Still, the Memphis Group had hoped it would last a little longer than it did.
Before the Memphis Group disbanded officially in 1987, they drew widespread attention and influenced the aesthetics of an entire decade. Unfortunately, attention did not translate to mainstream sales.
Moreover, such high-energy work is draining. Sottsass himself left the group in 1985, feeling he had done everything he possibly could. Looking to Massimo Iosa Ghini’s recent suspension light, Clochef, one finds little trace of his Memphis roots (though Clochef would likely look at home over his Bertrand sideboard).
Bertrand sideboard, 1981 and Clochef pendant lights from Leucos, 2018 by Massimo Iosa Ghini
Still, the ultimate intent of Memphis was never to supplant classic design, but rather to serve as a breath of fresh air that might revitalize and inform the design world going forward. In that, they were successful.
A Legacy of Fun
Both beloved and reviled by design professionals, there was simply too much vitality in Memphis to be left in the past. There has been a stunning revival of interest in both classic items and new designs in the last decade. Regard the work of Marcantonio, whose work, like almost all of Seletti's catalogue, is nothing if not a Memphis-like joyous celebration of brash vitality. Indeed, his Jurassic Lamps are clearly evocative of founding Memphis member Martine Bedin’s Super. Memphis’ legacy of joy and celebrating life is alive and flourishing.
Super lamp by Martine Bedin, 1981 and Marcantonio's Jurassic Lamps from Seletti
The soul of design will always be timeless dignity. Memphis never really argued that point. All Memphis suggested was that the party might be more fun if you also invite the guy in the aloha shirt with the lampshade on his head (please note: this metaphor is for rhetorical purposes only. In real life, that guy is usually just annoying).
More Memphis-Inspired lights at LightForm
Available now at LightFormSHOP.com (hint hint)
The work of Marcantonio and many others inspired by the Memphis movement are available from LightForm online or through one of our offices and showrooms in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Kelowna.