Often overshadowed by the iconoclastic Memphis Group—which has become the go-to reference for everything radical in design—Alchimia contributed enormously to the postmodern
movement in Italy. The collective's conceptual, artistic, and daring designs, sewed the seeds of Memphis and influenced generations of designers that followed. Today, the work is considered highly collectible.
Co-founded in 1976 by Alessandro Mendini and Adriana Guerriero, Alchimia was one of the first designer-led manufacturing collectives in Italy. Mendini and Guerriero were central figures in the “anti-design” (i.e. anti-Bauhaus design) activities that had gripped Milan from the late ’60s; Mendini, especially, was one of the movement's most outspoken theorists and advocates.
Alchimia released its ironic, plastic-covered Bau Haus Iand Bau Haus II furniture collections in 1978 and 1979. Arguably the most famous example of Alchimia’s works, the Proust Chair (1978), mixes a range of visual languages in order to criticize modernism's hardline stance against historical forms. Inspired by French author Marcel Proust’s love of Impressionism, Mendini upholstered an ornate, 19th-century, Baroque Revival easy chair entirely in hand-painted fabric. The Proust is included in the publication 100 Masterpieces from the Vitra Design Museum Collection and can be found in museum collections around the world. Less famous but just as visually striking, Mendini’s Kandissi Sofa (1976) and Redesigned Thonet Chair (1976) are further examples of Mendini’s exuberant take on reinventing classic designs.
Studio Alchimia grew through the course of the 1970s, with Ettore Sottsass and Michele de Lucchi (among others) eventually joining. Even though they shared many anti-modernist sentiments, Sottsass and Mendini were far from united in their cause. The two gifted and articulate architect-designers did not see eye-to-eye on whether their experimental designs should be produced on an industrial scale. Unable to overcome their differences—Sottsass was for going big and Mendini was against it—the pair went their separate ways. Sottsass founded Memphis in 1980, together with a group of designers who found Mendini’s design philosophy too restrictive.
To this day, Mendini champions the role of ideas in the discipline of design. His objects are unapologetically fanciful and bold; intended to challenge soullessness, narrow definitions of functionalism, and the repressive standards of good taste.