Saturday, November 27, 2010

Memphis Redux

The Carlton Cabinet - Designed by Ettore Sotts...Image by Mario Seekr via Flickr
Bookshelf, Ettore Sottsass, 1981

The holiday season tends to bring out the kid in most people. And when I think of kids and design, I'm most reminded historically of one of design's more unusual and whimsical periods - that of the Memphis style movement.

Primarily begun in the 1980's as a product design statement by a group of avant-garde Italian visionaries, including the acclaimed industrial designer Ettore Sottsass, Memphis style went from being shockingly esoteric to the mode du jour in less than a decade. In doing so, it challenged many of the long-standing rules of design, and brought with it a new era of post-modern experimentation and vitality.

The New York Times documented the beginnings of the movement in a related MoMA exhibit review a few years back:

Typwriter, (Valentine), Sottsass, 196
"Memphis was cooked up in Ettore Sottsass's Milan apartment one night in December 1980, when the host, then in his sixties and a grandee of Italian design, invited a group of younger designers to develop a furniture collection to show at the following year's Milan Furniture Fair. It was to be a protest against the dry modernist style that had dominated design for decades, and they called it "Memphis" because Bob Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" was on the record player, and the needle kept sticking (a common problem back in ye olden days of the 1980s) on the last three words of the title."

Some say that Memphis design also put an imaginative spin on Art Deco style of the 1920's, the later of which derived much of its initial influence from Egyptian motifs made popular at the time by the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb. Hence, the name may play on that foundation as well.

Whatever the case, the movement's bold use of bright primary colors and expressive zig-zag patterns seeped into everyday 1980's fashion and can be traced essentially to Sottsass's vision. The colorful triangular shapes on the pop singer El Debarge's jackets, or the the striking yellow outfits Mick Jagger wore at the time come forefront to memory. The movie Ruthless People, with Jagger's voice commanding the animated intro, gives one a good glimpse of the true playfulness of the style, as shown in the clip below:

But it was more than just color and wit that comprised the sensibilities inherent in Memphis design. There was a clear repudiation of standard assumptions of proportion and shape that stretched a new canvas for creative possibilities. Many of these overturned notions are present in product designs of items such as Apple computers and iPods, giving them an almost perennially futuristic appearance.

Sottsass also experimented heavily on a "utopian" concept of living space. He was an opinionated anti-consumerist, declaring at one point that "I didn’t want to do any more consumerist products, because it was clear that the consumerist attitude was quite dangerous."

"Living Environment" Exhibit, 1972.

Thus he often detoured from furniture design to explore concepts of interior and architecture. His forward-minded "Living Environment" exhibit, consisted of a series of nine compact, modular living compartments, each meant to be easily personalized and pleasant. One compartment contained a kitchen, another a seat/bed, a wardrobe, a toilet, a desk system and even a jukebox. His compartments were all connected to provide water and electricity to each unit.

As we move along into the twenty-first century, our living space is shrinking. In big cities such as Tokyo and Shanghai, his concepts already exist. At the rate we are depleting natural resources and contaminating the earth environment, there may well be a need for all of humanity to live in separate, small, sealed rooms that share power and water.

Totem Vase.
But in terms of mere aesthetics, some claim that we are in the midst of a Memphis style renaissance. As stated nicely by the Times reviewer, recent style is "rebelling against the slickness of megabranding to chase the 'emotional and expressive' qualities in the original Memphis pieces," and design also seems to be "searching for alternatives to the delicate neo-romantic style, which was fashionable in the early 2000s." What could be more suited for that than a reinterpretation of kitschy, flashy Memphis?

Love it or hate it, Memphis style remains one of the more peculiar and startling moments in design history. It was an eruption of modernity, as if modern style were looking back and re-imagining itself as a vibrant, amusing, radical, self-aware, contemplative other face. And as Sottsass said in a 1986 Chicago Tribune interview, "Memphis is like a very strong drug. You cannot take too much. I don't think anyone should put only Memphis around - it's like eating only cake."--D.A. DeMers.

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