Granted, I’ve always been a big fan of Bauhaus design. But that fact, somewhat ironically, explains why I love the Memphis Group designers so much. Like the trajectory of all stylistic movements there is tension and release, but the Memphis Group pulled farther in the opposite direction than almost any reactionary movement of the 20th century. Where dominant artists and intellectuals swooned over sleek, disaffected, learned artistic value (read: Walter Gropius, Johannes Itten, László Moholy-Nagy), the Memphis Group did the polar opposite; steeping their work in overly-saturated tones, wry and witty design – and form that took a frontseat and tossed function out the back window.
Industrialist designer Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) is the godsfather of the movement, which was coined after a night of boozing and listening to Dylan’s “Stuck Inside a Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” in 1981. Later that year, the group published a book, “Memphis: New International Style” to advertise the movement. On a rainy night in October 1982, over 3,000 people stood in line outside a loft in Chelsea, hoping to squeeze into an already brimming showroom. The event was Memphis at Midnight, the United States’ first look at the intrepid furniture that was by then sweeping the international art world. At its high the group counted among its members Martine Bedin, Andrea Branzi, Aldo Cibic, Michele de Lucchi, Nathalie du Pasquier, Michael Graves, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, Shiro Kuromata, Matteo Thun, Javier Mariscal, George Sowden, Marco Zanini, and journalist Barbara Radice. By 1988, the group was on its deathbed, but its impact continues to reverberate throughout the design world, (such as, in the SS ’10 Collection by Chris Benz!), and kind of lives on in my VHS copy of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985).