MEMPHIS, Milan (manufacturer)<br />
 Nathalie du PASQUIER (designer)<br/>
<em>Cherchio, fabric length</em> 1983 <!-- (recto) --><br />

screenprinted cotton<br />
297.0 x 150.5 cm<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased with the assistance of the National Gallery Women's Association, 1985<br />
CT120-1985<br />


The rise and fall of Milan Memphis


1981 was quite a year. In the US, Ronald Reagan was sworn into office, and MTV went on the air. Britain thrilled to the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana. The first DeLorean spread its gull-wing doors in Northern Ireland. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was filmed in Australia. And Italy? It had Memphis, arguably the most outrageous design experiment of the twentieth century. 

The Milan Memphis began as the brainchild of Ettore Sottsass, Jr., a veteran of the Italian design scene. He’d been part of several other experimental groups, going back to the late 1960s, but had become frustrated by the limitations of the avant-garde. Unlike most of his associates in radical design, Sottsass was also a successful product designer, who had worked for some of Italy’s biggest companies at the time, such as Olivetti and Poltronova. He saw an opportunity to combine the two aspects of his career, the seemingly opposing intelligences of art and mass production.  

Memphis was the result. It was, in part, a product placement exercise for one of Sottsass’s clients, Abet Laminati (the formica of Italy). He’d already made some furniture using their thin plastic veneers, and now proposed making a whole collection. For the project, he drafted a group of like-minded designers – all of them younger, some of them by several decades.  

Legendarily, they came up with the name late at night, while Bob Dylan’s Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again was playing on the turntable. It probably stuck because of the reference to American pop culture, though the more subtle allusion to the ancient city of Egypt was also apt. The group set out to make startlingly new forms that were also archetypal.   

Sottsass’s own Carlton room divider, 1981, supported by NGVWA, was a primary symbol of the group and its intentions. Brazenly artificial, like so many Abet Laminati colour swatches assembled into a piece of furniture, it is crowned by a jaunty anthropomorphic form (once you spot the square head, it’s easy to see the upraised arms and splayed legs). It’s as if design had taken on new life – and in a sense, it very much had. 

Ettore SOTTSASS (designer)<br />
 MEMPHIS, Milan (manufacturer and retailer)<br/>
<em>Carlton room divider</em> 1981 <!-- (front view) --><br />

wood, thermosetting laminate, metal, plastic<br />
(a-c) 196.0 x 189.7 x 40.2 cm (overall) (closed)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased with the assistance of the National Gallery Women's Association, 1985<br />
D76.a-c-1985<br />
&copy; erede Ettore Sottsass / Copyright Agency, 2024

Speaking of names, Carlton is an interesting choice. It refers to the luxury hotel, a pattern followed by most of the designs in the first Memphis collection. Michael Graves made a Plaza vanity, Peter Shire a Bel Air chair, Alessandro Mendini a Cipriani cabinet. It was a way to make the project seem that much more brazenly commercial. An exception to this rule (Memphis hated rules) was Martine Bedin’s Super lamp, which was set on wheels; she liked to imagine it following its owner around, like a pet. 

The first Memphis collection had dramatic impact when it was unveiled in September 1981. Not too many people wanted to actually live with these pieces (a notable exception was the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who decorated his whole apartment with them). So the furniture was never mass-produced, unless one counts the images that suddenly filled design magazines. These were media-ready objects, whose primary purpose was arguably to be photographed.  

They did indeed set the trend for much of 1980s design. Not just furniture but clothing, jewellery, music videos, packaging and architecture, all borrowed from the Memphis palette of harsh geometry, vivid color and riotous pattern. The NGV displayed Sottsass’s Carlton next to Cini Boeri’s breathtaking Ghost chair, 1987 (designed), 2016 (manufactured), supported by Gordon Moffatt AM made of a single sheet of bent glass, Tom Dixon’s neo-industrial Pylon chair, 1991 (designed), 1992 (manufactured), one of the first pieces of furniture designed on a computer, by the way, and Philippe Starck’s cheekily gestural W. W. stool, 1990 (designed), 2002 (manufactured). Safe to say, none of these – nor most of the other designs that gave the 1980s such a distinctive look – would have happened without the image-oriented, concept-driven impetus that Memphis provided. 

 Though Memphis designs are still manufactured in small numbers today, the original line-up only lasted a few years. Like a lot of rock bands, they had a few monster hits and then parted company to pursue other projects. Ever since, people have asked themselves: was their work awesome or awful? For quite a while, the consensus among design cognoscenti was definitely leaning toward the latter, but more recently opinions have begun to shift.  

Matteo THUN (designer)<br />
 MEMPHIS, Milan (retailer)<br />
 ALESSIO SARRI CERAMICHE, Florence (manufacturer)<br/>
<em>Pelicanus Bellicosus teapot</em> 1982 <!-- (front view) --><br />

earthenware<br />
(a-b) 22.4 x 37.3 x 10.4 cm (overall)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased from Admission Funds, 1991<br />
D84.a-b-1991<br />
&copy; Matteo Thun

 Maybe it’s just the pendulum swing of fashion, as each generation revives the things it’s not supposed to. Maybe it’s that we are even more image-obsessed than the 1980s were – Memphis sure looks great on Instagram. But maybe there’s something deeper in those laminated surfaces. Maybe this signature style – arguably the last radical design gesture of the twentieth century – remains genuinely provocative today, an ongoing challenge to good taste. Why look back at Memphis now? The objects have an answer, and it’s the same thing they’ve always said: why not?      

Glenn Adamson is a curator, writer and historian based in Brooklyn, New York, who works across the fields of design, craft and contemporary art. 

This essay was commissioned for NGV Magazine Issue 38 | Jan–Feb 2023