Design Deconstruction: Memphis Group

WORDS Tracy Lynn Chemaly IMAGES Hayden Phipps, Pariano Angelantonio, Studio Azzurro courtesy of Memphis SRL, Milano, Guild/Southern Guild

This global group of ’80s designers challenged the design status quo with a dazzling and ultimately influential range of furniture and objects.

The Memphis Group of design took its name from the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, a song that was played on repeat the night of the international group’s first meeting in Milan in 1980. Considering the juxtaposition of extravagant fantasy and age-old mysticism embedded in the objects created by its members, its name seems rather appropriate if one recalls that Memphis – home to Elvis’ Graceland – was named after Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt.

Launched during the Milan Furniture Fair of 1981, with 40 pieces by the likes of Marco Zanini, Michele De Lucchi, Martine Bedin and Nathalie du Pasquier, the Memphis Group created an uproar – both of disgust and delight.

Here were odd, unexpected forms of decor – some of indeterminate function – painted in audacious colours like blinding fuchsia and popping pastels, in which plastic laminate and terrazzo found bizarre unity. At the time, Modern and Minimalist design still reigned supreme, and puritanical ideas about form and function prevailed. Furniture was clean-lined and spare, pattern and ornamentation were minimal and material was based on hierarchical conventions – marble for sophisticated living-room tables; laminates for kitchen floors. If colour was introduced to interiors, it would be a “safe” primary hue.

memphis group
Carrot ceramic flower vase by Nathalie Du Pasquier
memphis group
Labrador sauce boat in silver or silver-plate by Andrea Branzi

But architect and designer Ettore Sottsass, regarded as the group’s protagonist, was interested in enriching objects rather than paring them back. His fascination with Eastern and African spiritual traditions, Pop design and the arts-and-crafts movement resulted in individualistic, curious-looking creations such as his tendril-like Ashoka lamp of painted metal, and colour-loaded Carlton storage unit resembling a human-tree hybrid. Memphis member Andrea Branzi said the aim of such designs was “recuperating decoration and colour as signs of freedom and nobility of creative invention” while “going beyond ergonomic limits and concentrating on an affective relationship between man and his things”.

Even single-colour pieces, such as Matteo Thun’s nude porcelain vases, maintained this notion of challenging perceptions in their almost cartoonish shapes.

It was fine that Memphis wasn’t embraced by the masses, because its principle of being partly handcrafted and produced in very small quantities was a precise reaction to the limitations and repetitiveness of mass production at the time. It’s something we can relate to in a country where handcraft is part of the cultural narrative, and where vibrant tones and heritage patterns are ingrained in our collective psyche. Trend analyst Li Edelkoort highlighted the similarities when she curated Totemism: Memphis Meets Africa at Design Indaba 2013. Even now, seven years on, and more than 30 years since the Memphis Group disbanded in 1988, parallels can be seen here at home.

memphis group
Kae-Kapa-Kae table by Atang Tshikare.

Atang Tshikare’s graphic surface patterns could be the modern-day counterpart of Du Pasquier’s expressive motifs, while Porky Hefer’s Molecules collection of colour-loaded leather-pod seating, recently launched at Design Miami, is sure to have Sottsass et al. wishing Hefer had been part of their ’80s crew. In a world tackling grievous issues, it’s a relief to know that furniture can still be zany enough to make us smile.

Looking for more on design? Read all about the Bauhaus design movement.