How the Memphis movement started
On December 11, 1980, in Milan, Sottsass assembled a group of young designers and architects, including the original seven co-founders Martine Bedin, Aldo Cibic, Michele De Lucchi, Nathalie Du Pasquier, George Sowden, Matteo Thun and Marco Zanini, to explore the future of design, and Memphis was founded. They sought to shift the notion of what design had previously been centered on, going beyond art deco and pop art, and while they revered the Bauhaus, they felt constrained by the founding principles of modernism, and planned to challenge them by organising an entirely new design collaborative.
Memphis designers intended to highlight the radical and absurd aspects of the city. When Bob Dylan's album "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" was playing endlessly in the background during their first meeting, they got the idea for the name, Memphis. The group went away after this to explore new ideas, then returned three months later to show their drawings to the team. Less than a year after, the group debuted at the Salone del Mobile (Milan's world-renowned furniture fair). Outside the gallery, thousands of eager design lovers waited, impeding traffic.
Despite its success, Memphis design went out of favour as minimalism took root in the 90s. However, today it is considered a revolutionary design movement in its own right, both in Italy and around the world.
The Memphis Group's designs were widely criticised from the start, with some claiming that it was never a success. The group defied established design rules by using elements that were traditionally considered as bad-taste and kitsch, such as plastic lamination, colourful stripes, geometric shapes, dramatic patterns, and abstract motifs.
Their unusual, costly furniture designs found appeal in the United States, as people queued in New York, in 1982 to see the Group's debut collection. By 1985, major merchants were selling furniture influenced by the unique design approach of Memphis. After riding a wave of mainstream popularity, the group disbanded in 1988, just seven years after starting.
Overall, Memphis influenced the design of furniture, architecture, household products, and clothing in the 80s and nowadays. The loud, bold, lively, fun, unconstrained approach, and usage of brilliant colours in unusual combinations were what people enjoyed.
Television, haute couture and more
Television shows, celebrities, and haute couture fashion businesses admired Memphis' style. David Bowie, the musician, was a notable Memphis design collector. Nathalie Du Pasquier, one of the group's initial members and designers whose work includes furniture, clothing designs, and jewellery, designed a collection for American Apparel a few years later, in 2014.
With Karl Lagerfeld as an admirer, Memphis took the fashion world by storm. The fall-winter 2011–2012 Christian Dior haute couture collection and the winter 2015 Missoni ready-to-wear collection both incorporated aspects influenced by Memphis as a synthesis of fashion and design. In 2016, Supreme released a line of skate decks and clothing designed by Alessandro Mendini, who made his debut in the inaugural Memphis show.
What is fascinating about this movement is that designers were free to experiment despite the limitations of modernism, as it worked on the notion of ephemerality, as Sottsass put it: "Every strong idea lasts a very short period.” Memphis had a major impact from the start. Even now, the movement is considered to be as relevant as ever in the design world and beyond.
Discover the Memphis Milano collection here.