Mizar Vase by Ettore Sottsass - Memphis Milano
In honor of Memphis's 40 year-anniversary, discover the fascinating history of one of the most iconic Italian design brands. In the 80s, their bright colors and playful patterns became an unconventional statement against rigorous functionality. Read our interview with Memphis's owner Alberto Bianchi Albrici for an insider's look at this sophisticatedly irreverent brand.
At the end of 1980, a group of designers and architects gathered in Ettore Sottsass’ living room and lay the foundations for a new way of imagining design, bringing to life a veritable artistic movement. With Bob Dylan's song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” playing in the background, Memphis was born - a name referring to the ancient capital of Egypt as well as the birthplace of Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin. The first collection of 55 products was presented at Salone del Mobile in 1981, at Arc ’74 showroom in Milan. A multitude of people crowded outside the gallery to discover this new design language made of irrational shapes, playful patterns, and unconventional materials like plastic laminates.
The first group of designers, made of Aldo Cibic, Matteo Thun, Marco Zanini, Martine Bedin, Michele De Lucchi, Nathalie Du Pasquier, and George Sowden, under the guidance of Ettore Sottsass, soon expanded into a vibrant talent's nest. Memphis quickly gained great public success, winning the hearts of international artists and celebrities. Its collections stand out for a particular imaginative enthusiasm, for breaking the rules of academic design opening up its boundaries to colors, patterns, and bizarre shapes. With Memphis, eccentricity became a signature style, the expression of the cultural melting pot of the time.
The Memphis dream came to an end in 1987, but the creative production continued to look to the future with Meta Memphis and Post Design, remaining true to its native irreverent spirit. Read our interview with Memphis's owner Alberto Bianchi Albrici to learn more about an icon of Italian design.
Memphis was born out of a convivial occasion: an evening with friends who shared the same passions and urgency to redefine the terms of design. How much has this aspect influenced the development of its playful and irreverent aesthetic, in defining not only a movement but also the real "Memphis Spirit"?
Conviviality was part of Ettore Sottsass's way of life, but there are no particular links to Memphis and its aesthetic language. Sottsass had always challenged the bourgeois self-righteousness of the elite circles with intelligence and irony, both before and after Memphis. With Memphis, Sottsass believed it possible to create an industrial production that was within everyone's reach - colorful, affordable, and approachable - but his dream immediately turned out to be a utopia.
How significant was the city of Milan in the founding of the movement? Could Memphis have been born in another city?
Milan offered all the necessary external conditions: the lender, the producer, the exhibitor, the distributor, the site of Sottsass's studio (where designers either worked or gravitated towards), the international press, and the Salone del Mobile. However, the movement could have also been born elsewhere: in the past, Tuscany and Florence had seen the birth and development of other important movements and companies linked to design and Sottsass, like Poltronova or Superstudio.
Memphis was representative of the cultural circumstances of the 1980s. Do you believe it is still possible today for a brand to embody the changes of a specific historical period, so that its message becomes part of the object’s function?
Memphis was the answer to the specific turmoils and passions of a by-gone era. Today, the geographic context, the utilization and production methods, the ways we live and buy design objects have all changed. The Memphis phenomenon could never have been born today, even though we now witness a great deal of attention to and resurgence of this movement.
Memphis goes beyond the logic of design and overturns traditional canons so much so that it is associated with a real artistic movement. What is the link between your creations and the collectors’ world? How would you describe your collector-type?
As we’ve said, Memphis was conceived precisely in opposition to this type of logic, but instead collectors and intellectuals were the first to be seduced by it and buy Memphis pieces. The renowned, extensive Memphis collections belonging to Karl Lagerfeld and David Bowie, to name but a few, says a lot about its typical collectors: cultured, open-minded, nonconformist.
The Ring bed is one of the most iconic pieces of the movement, notably featured in the famous photograph of the entire group. What does this piece represent for the brand and its cultural identity?
The Ring bed, as well as the Carlton bookcase by Sottsass, are emblematic pieces from the collection: iconic but essentially unusable. Like all Memphis pieces, the form does not follow the function (as rationalism and common sense predicate) but rather precedes it, therefore making the function entirely irrelevant.
Memphis has always been and continues to be a breeding ground for talented artists: what is the brand’s current approach to discovering emerging designers?
The creative story of Memphis-Milan - which started in 1980/81 - officially came to a close in 1988. From that moment on, there has been a constant questioning and reflection on that unrepeatable moment, with very different results - oftentimes antithetical, sometimes in continuity - first with Meta Memphis and then with Post Design
In 2021, Memphis celebrated its 40th anniversary: how has your artistic language changed and evolved over time and, looking to the future, how will it stay connected with tradition?
We try to remain faithful to what we deem Sottsass' greatest teaching: to be open, free from preconceptions, and curious about everything.