Launched in Milan in 1980, Memphis was a design collective that aimed to disrupt the status quo of the design industry. Led by architect-designer Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007), these designers conceived and produced era-defining furniture, ceramics, and lighting that disregarded the tenets of modernism in favor or forms and ornamentation infused with historical and pop culture visual vocabularies.
According to legend, in late 1980, Sottsass was in his Milanese apartment with a group of young designers—including radical designer and Alchimia member Michele De Lucchi (b. 1951)— discussing how bourgeois and irrelevant design had become. The 1966 Bob Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again was playing in the background. Together they decided to create a collection of new work full of vitality and in tune with times. They enlisted production work from cabinetmaker Renzo Brugola, a showroom from Mario and Brunella Godani, and financial backing from Ernesto Gismondi, president of Artemide. Over the years, prominent Memphis designers would include Martine Bedin, Andrea Branzi, Aldo Cibic, Michael Graves, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, Shiro Kuramata, Javier Mariscal, Alessandro Mendini, Luciano Paccagnella, Nathalie du Pasquier, Barbara Radice, Peter Shire, George Sowden, Matteo Thun, Masanori Umeda, Marco Zanini, and Marco Zanuso Jr.
Memphis’s first exhibition took place on September 18, 1981 at Milan’s Arc ’74 and launched the group to international notoriety. The provocative, postmodern pieces designed for the exhibition featured bold colors and unconventional shapes; many were coated in mismatched, patterned laminates—a material specifically chosen for its connotation of cheapness. The first Memphis collection included Sottsass’s Beverly Cabinet, Tahiti Lamp, and Carlton Bookcase; Sowden’s Oberoi Armchairs; du Pasquier’s 1950s-style, pink and black textile print; Bedin’s Superlamp; and de Lucchi’s Oceanic Lamp.
The group went on to hold more exhibitions in London, Los Angeles, Tokyo, San Francisco, New York, and Milan. Sottsass left in 1985 to resume his architectural role at Sottsass Associati. In 1988, the group disbanded. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Alberto Bianchi Albrici bought the Memphis-Milano brand and has continued to the produce classic Memphis designs ever since.
While always controversial, Memphis has an immense influence on the course of design history. In the 2010s, the Memphis aesthetic has seen a revival across creative disciplines; Memphis’s recent influence, for example, can be seen in Christian Dior’s 2011 fall haute couture collection, Missoni’s 2015 winter collection, and a number of exhibitions presented during Milan Design Week in 2013 and 2014.
* Special thanks to Memphis-Milano and Dennis Zanone, an avid collector of vintage Memphis, for images.