For more than thirty years, I have been thinking about Memphis. I witnessed its early excitement, its widespread and longstanding influence, and even its dismissal as a fad. Somehow, however, the work of the legendary design collective remains as provocative, primal, and playful as when it was new. Today, the work is experiencing a renaissance: Memphis design is again being featured in galleries, museums, the Milan Fair, and in a flurry of articles in the press including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. In a recent T magazine article, Deborah Needleman noted, “the postmodern Memphis movement was a fat thumb in the eye of aristocratic good taste. At T-Style that’s the sort of renegade style we champion” (“Second Thoughts,”T, March 17, 2015), How disappointing, then, that the accompanying interiors were filled with anemic beige and gray – hued clones that were seen as “more palatable.” Real Memphis still seems to lie outside our collective comfort zone.
The early days of Memphis were thrilling. Barbara Radice, art and cultural director of Memphis and author of the comprehensive book and manifesto Memphis, perfectly described the happenings on December 11, 1980 as "twenty square meters of Sottsass's living room, white wine, music, excitement, laughter, smoke, complicity" with the other founding designer/architects: Michele De Lucchi, Marco Zanini, Matteo Thun, and Martine Bedin. I imagine them listening to Dylan's ‘Stuck in Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ over and over, until Sottsass said, ‘ok, let's call it Memphis.’" These pioneers were tired of the corporate arena, which was risk-averse and wary of radical innovation. Instead, they solicited ideas from friends and colleagues around the globe for the future of what they called New Design. By February, the group, now including architect George Sowden and artist Nathalie Du Pasquier had amassed over a hundred drawings, with more arriving daily from architects and designers worldwide. Later that year, thirty-one pieces of furniture, three clocks, ten lamps, and eleven ceramics hijacked the Milan Fair. Design—and the business of design—were indelibly changed.
Ettore Sottsass himself provides perhaps the best insight into the psyche of the Memphis phenomenon. An early prodigy, he enjoyed worldwide success as the creator of the bright red Valentine typewriter and signature mainframe computers for Olivetti. He was, however, deeply troubled by the stodgy culture of corporate design, and ultimately left to “walk in the desert” for a year, thinking about life, design, and popular culture. He returned with renewed fervor, quickly aligning himself with various radical design groups, including Superstudio, Archizoom, and Studio Alchimia. He established himself as a fearless innovator and critic of corporate design culture. He loved life and believed that design could lift the mind and spirit and improve the quality of everyday existence. It is no surprise that an international cadre of young designers flocked to his door.
This group of people were not only designing, but challenging the very nature of design and the philosophy of the Modern/Postmodern era. Theirs was an intellectual and existential effort to demolish the norms of corporate Modernism in favor of a more nimble and flexible process. Design decision-making was put back in the hands of designers; manufacturing was entrusted to local job-shops. This collective investigation of basic design hierarchy was intended to formulate a body of viscerally provocative work through the development of new vocabularies of form and pattern and a nontraditional use of color.
Nathalie Du Pasquier shared her thoughts about Memphis and color in a recent interview:
…most people think about Memphis, that it was just fun. But bright colors are not childish. Those patterns were not funny. It was totally misunderstood in the sense that it was taken for a joke – that the serious thinking was part of Modernism, and because what we were doing was in reaction against that, it meant we were not serious, in the sense that we thought they were important, and we deeply felt them (“Surface Matters,”Metropolis, April 2015).
My own initial view of Memphis in 1982 was astounding. I had heard of the shocking colors and the radical shapes, but I was entirely unprepared for the energy – raw, vibrant, and sharp-edged, packaged in crisp, saw-tooth forms and exuberant patterns. The experience was transformative. Unable to buy pieces through a showroom in the United States, I promptly became a distributor, and filled my home with works that would become lifelong friends.
I needed to understand where Memphis came from. In the early 1980s, Marco Zanini used the television as a simple metaphor to explain it to me. He pointed out that households across the globe were miraculously receiving instantaneous news stories for the first time, and yet most were still watching their ‘tube” in a “Rococo” or “Colonial” case. Modern technology had outpaced the evolution of design. I understood my future course: during the more than three decades that followed, I lived with Memphis, curated and traveled exhibitions of New Design, opened a Sottsass-designed showroom dedicated to Memphis, and lectured to thousands of people. I always hoped I could tell the story clearly, and the uninitiated would immediately understand the deeper message. Nonetheless, reactions have remained extreme: people either love it, or never “get” it!
Even the name “Memphis” has proved confusing. For Americans, it does not signify the pyramids in Egypt but the Tennessee hometown of Elvis Presley. The founders of the movement, however, were looking to Ptah, the Egyptian demiurge of Memphis and the god and protector of artists, craftsmen, and architects. Moreover, our showroom in the Dallas World Trade Center was often confused with another vendor in the building that sold conventional wood bunk beds called “Memphis!”
Recently, I reconnected with Barbara Radice, who shared recollections of the group’s many visits to the United States for exhibitions or events.
Lorry: I always wondered how it was for you and the designers who attended the opening of the Memphis in Memphis exhibition in Memphis, Tennessee?
Barbara: I am afraid you are going to be let down. While attending any Memphis exhibits in the US, I was always more interested in the US than in Memphis. Do not take me wrong. Of course I cared that the show was good and usually it was, but I was definitely more curious about the jazz and blues clubs of Memphis, Tennessee or in the alligators in the Mississippi bayous or in the architecture of Houston. Imagine that for us [Ettore Sottsass and Radice], America has always been so very exotic, more exotic than, for instance, India or Japan.
Take Texas. We loved Texas. I remember Galveston…and Dallas…. The first time I arrived in Dallas it was July and it was so hot I had to run with you into some department store to buy a jacket or sweater for surviving indoors. Do you remember? Everybody was running the AC at 17 degrees centigrade! Unbelievable.
Lorry: So, how was it for you to be in Tennessee’s Memphis? Was it what you expected?
Barbara: I have a very beautiful memory of the city, of the people and also of the exhibition. It was a very good one, but what we all really remember and loved were the clubs. Very deeply poetic. We were moved.
Lorry: Is there something you want to say to America about Memphis design now?
Barbara: Dear Lorry, I wrote a book. What else can I say about Memphis to America or anybody? It was a very special time we shared. And the work is there to see. It did what it intended to do: to open and update the alphabet of design. I’d rather now listen to what others have to say about it.
Lorry: I always felt it was much harder to get the people here to be open-minded about new design than I imagined it was in Europe or elsewhere in the world…
Barbara: What I imagine you call “open-minded people” are a rarity anytime, anywhere, I believe. But there are surprises. The first Memphis piece to be sold over here was the Casablanca Sideboard by Sottsass, mysteriously bought by a dentist from Catania, Sicily. Never once we were able to guess why and how one piece would be liked or not. [One of the first major Memphis pieces sold from our Dallas showroom was the Century Chaise by Andrea Branzi, bought by a Galveston psychiatrist.]
In all the years since Memphis’s inception, viewers’ reactions have remained constant: surprise, delight, intrigue—“not your parents’ furniture.” I am repeatedly asked: “What is it like to live with Memphis?” A plethora of directives advise on how to make a harmonious interior design; even Modernism tends to refer to the same formal principles. But, not Memphis, which “impudently employs the twin taboos of modernism: pattern and ornament” (J.D. Reed,
(Wild Beat of Memphis, March 17, 1984).
For me, Memphis was all about breaking those taboos and considering interiors as more personal, open expressions in design. But, not everyone translates “freedom” the same way. A group of cub scouts once arrived at our door on a canned food drive. Peering wide-eyed at the living room filled with Memphis and New Design, they asked if we really “lived” there! Teenagers, however, seem giddily enthusiastic: they immediately understand the energy and irreverence, and always want to move in.
When it came time for my son’s first play date at age three, I picked him up from our friends’ home (graciously furnished in a Colonial theme) and asked him how everything went. His quick response was “everything was great, but they had really weird furniture.” Laughing, I broke the news to him, “No, honey, it’s we who have the weird furniture.” Now, at age twenty, he may be the only one he will ever know who grew up with Memphis furnishings.
For me, Modernism, and design itself, are philosophies of intention. They are about deliberate process, communication, and the power of ideas. There can be no more Modern pursuit than to upset convention, innovate at a primal level, and communicate a spirit of joyous rebellion against whatever has become the status quo. Thirty years after its dramatic debut, Memphis continues to assert its undeniable legacy.