Memphis Group  

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The Carlton Cabinet (1981) by Ettore Sottsass was my first exposure to postmodernism. I was hooked.--Jahsonic

In 1981 at the Milan Furniture Fair, the world of design was shattered, visitors discovered after years of rationalism a collection of strange furniture such as Ettore Sottsass's Carlton Cabinet with flashily coloured plastic laminates emblazoned with kitsch geometric and leopard-skin patterns usually found in 1950s comic books or cheap caf├ęs.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Memphis Group was an influential postmodern Italian design and architecture movement of the 1980s. Memphis explored a visual language outside of the limiting canons of "good taste," blurring the boundaries between "high culture" and mass-produced "ordinary" consumer goods. The American film Ruthless People (1986) features many pieces of Memphis furniture.


The group was founded by Ettore Sottsass on 11 December 1980, and resolved to meet again with their designs in February 1981. The result was a highly-acclaimed debut at the 1981 Salone del Mobile of Milan, the world's most prestigious furniture fair. The group, which eventually counted among its members Michele de Lucchi, Matteo Thun, Javier Mariscal, Marco Zanini, Aldo Cibic, Andrea Branzi, Barbara Radice, Martine Bedin, George J. Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier, disbanded in 1988.

Named after the Bob Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, the movement was a reaction against the post-Bauhaus "black box" designs of the 1970s and had a sense of humour that was lacking at the time in design. Prepared to mix 20th century styles, colours and materials, it positioned itself as a fashion rather than an academic movement, and hoped to erase the International Style where postmodernism had failed, preferring an outright revival and continuation of Modernism proper rather than a re-reading of it.

While designers such as Philippe Starck were influenced by Memphis, the continuing rise of minimalism in the 1990s saw a return to 'seriousness'.

Memphis Movement

The Memphis group was comprised of Italian designers and architects who created a series of highly influential products in the 1980's. They disagreed with the approach of the time and challenged the idea that products had to follow conventional shapes, colours, textures and patterns.

The Memphis group was founded in 1981. One of the leading members of the group, Ettore Sottsass, called Memphis design the "New International Style."

The Memphis movement was a reaction against the slick, black, humourless design of the 1970's. It was a time of minimalism with such products as typewriters, buildings, cameras, cars and furniture all seeming to lack personality and individualism.

In contrast the Memphis Group offered bright, colourful, shocking pieces. The colours they used contrasted the dark blacks and browns of European furniture. The word tasteful is not normally associated with products generated by the Memphis Group but they were certainly ground breaking at the time.

All this would seem to suggest that the Memphis Group was very superficial but that was far from the truth. The group intended to develop a new creative approach to design.

On the 11th of December 1980 Sottsass organised a meeting with other such famous designers. They decided to form a design collaborative. It would be named Memphis after the Bob Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. Coincidentally the song had been played repeatedly throughout the evening.

They drew inspiration from such movements as Art Deco and Pop Art, styles such as the 1950's Kitsch and futuristic themes. Their concepts were in stark contrast to so called 'Good Design'.

The work of the Memphis Group has been described as vibrant, eccentric and ornamental. It was conceived by the group to be a 'fad', which like all fashions would very quickly come to an end. In 1988, Sottsass dismantled the group.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Memphis Group" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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