How the Memphis Design Movement Made a Comeback


Technologically, there was nothing new about the brightly colored and eccentrically shaped tables, chairs and sofas, along with a few clocks and even a TV set finished in green-and-black-patterned laminate, that made up the first collection. It relied on humble materials and conventional furniture-making techniques for what was nevertheless a powerful assertion of a new aesthetic approach. For Sottsass, Memphis demonstrated that there was more to contemporary Italian design than polite good taste.

Memphis was trying to have things both ways, mixing high art and popular culture; the name was a reference to both Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and the ancient Egyptian city.

What was most shocking at the time was the palette: brash combinations of sweet-toothed nursery colors mixed with patterns tattooed onto every available surface. Depending on the cultural disposition and the age of the observer, it seemed either mildly threatening or wildly liberating.

“It sent shock waves through the academic world in Europe, for sure,” Jasper Morrison, one of the more sober and successful designers of his generation, who was at the birth of Memphis as a 20-year-old student, told Domus magazine. “Suddenly you could say: ‘But why can’t I do it this way, it’s valid, if that’s what is going on.’”


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