Memphis was a movement in interior design introduced at the annual Milan Furniture Fair in 1981. It consisted of a group led by Memphis guru Ettore Sottsass of avant-garde Italian designers. With outrageous interpretations of traditional furnishings and accessories, Memphis shocked the traditionally quiet industry. They also grabbed all the press coverage and turned the interior design community on its head.
Memphis Design was a metal chair with a green seat, black legs and yellow arms, or a sofa with a round orange cushion and a square cherry cushion. On a regal tabletop on regal turquoise fibreglass ‘monument’ feet, it could be a thick, round, marble coffee table top.
In accessories, it could be a funnel-shaped red and white cup that sits whimsically on a “matching” square saucer or a gravel-patterned red, white and black kitchen canister set with jagged tops.
It is a playful, asymmetrical, irreverent, colourful and sometimes downright bizarre approach to furniture, lamp vases, clocks, kitchen products and a host of other household items.
It is a bit hard to pinpoint the origin of the name Memphis.
It was derived from the city of Tennessee and the Egyptian site, this innovative design group. Perhaps the choice was prompted by the European love affair with everything from 1950s America.
Ettore Sottsass is usually regarded as the movement’s reigning intellect. Marco Zanini, Daniel Weil, Shiro Kuamata, George Snowden, Michele De Lucchi, Aldo Cibic, Nathalie du Pasquier, Andrea Branzi and Javier Mariscal were among the other designers associated with the movement.
The popular response to the movement was mixed during the ’80s. People loved it or hated it or found that it was growing on them.
In the design movement, Memphis was considered a real turning point. The design of Memphis furniture was looked at differently afterwards. Furniture now had the potential, like art, to be intellectually stimulating. It was often considered a supplier of works of dubious taste. Memphis came to be seen as a highly desirable expression of modern culture.
Memphis is above the shock stage and gives itself a modicum of respectability. It became an integral part of the European style, a catch-all phrase that blended Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassicism and Memphis with contemporary design. It can still be considered bold and exciting, though.
Designers refer to this as a rippling effect. It meant rich, pink burl for Memphis instead of laminate on a Misura Emme dinner table or a combination of rare briarwood and plastic laminates on a sophisticated coffee table designed by Sottsass.
Nathalie Du Pasquier and George Sowden’s lamps look like, albeit futuristic, lamps.
There is evidence of restrained patterns, lively colours, bold patterns, and a punk balance. Memphis has become gorgeous.
MORE THAN The Memphis design movement, however, means freedom from anything else. Freedom uses colour and a great deal of it. Freedom to put in the same room an antique Chippendale wardrobe and a numberless ARTime wall clock. And liberty to find humour and style in the most useful objects of life.
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