In the face of my previous post I do wish to consider the work of the Memphis Group as out of style. I don’t think that I would be offending any of the group’s members by stating that assertion, as Memphis was designed to be a fad, to be ephemeral. Started in December of 1980 in Ettore Sottsass‘ Milan apartment, the group sought to break free of the reigning “good taste” of the day. Memphis flaunted color and used non-traditional, industrial materials to create kitschy, consumable one-offs. Sottsass said that Memphis was “quoting from suburbia.”
Memphis got its’ moniker from the Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again,”) which was stuck on Sottsass’ record player during a meeting and which they thought was a great name for all that it evoked. It was a phenomenon. Memphis exploded on the scene as it became the visual language of the new post-modern culture. It was as if there was a whole new generation of young tastemakers who were suddenly able to talk. As it was designed to do, it woke up an entire culture that didn’t even know it was asleep by crushing the old way of seeing things. In that context, you could argue that Memphis was a bomb – a shocking jolt that can only be used once. At least, that’s how I like to think of it and how I think Sottass thought of it. He saw the power Memphis wielded and he knew that its’ energy was used up. By the mid-80s he was over it, and he disbanded the group, almost never to reference it again. As Memphis retreated a New Design filled the gap, sieving out the rebellious underpinnings of the group while co-opting all the suburban appeal, commodifying it for corporate, commercial pursuits ironically, yet inevitably becoming the new “good taste.”
Looking at a Memphis piece today , it is impossible not to immediately think of the ’80s. To its’ credit, it screams it so loudly that it hurts. You may even cringe. All in all, it’s not a pleasant feeling, which makes it hard to appreciate its’ aesthetic or anti-aesthetic. Even in the eclectic time that we live, in which non-conformity rules, Memphis pieces are too much. They dominate everything around them, commanding your attention like a car crash.
I’m fascinated by Memphis. Ettore Sottsass was a design icon, even leaving out his Memphis-phase he is deservedly viewed in the highest regard. His place in the pantheon of great designers is secure. Moreover, the Memphis Group made such an impact that, as a collective, its’ place in the history of design is assured. The foundation is there. Memphis was important. Thus, it is only a matter of time before Memphis comes fully back into style. You see their pieces at auctions, you see them in the stores of the LCDQ from time to time, but you rarely see any of it in the design mags or other various outlets which convey taste to the masses. The demand is not there. But just like anything else of important pedigree, there is great significance. Ineluctably, it will be “good taste” again.