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Issue 217

Disillusions of a Modernist Utopia: The Memphis Group’s Thwarted Design Revolution

A new exhibition on the Italian design group at MK Gallery solemnly reminds us that the 1980s design movement was a commercial and ideological failure 

BY Alice Bucknell in Reviews , UK Reviews | 04 JAN 21

‘Can we imagine a new world simply by designing a new chair?’ posed French industrial designer Martine Bedin on the evening of the Memphis Group’s formation in a smoke-filled Milanese apartment in 1980. Recounted in her book Et Déjà L’Objet N’Est Plus Là (And Already the Object Is No Longer There, 2015), Bedin’s question hints at the movement’s fanciful premise. Disillusioned with a modernist utopia that never arrived, the 56 international designers who comprised the loose group championed bad taste and dreamed of a design revolution. Among their material arsenal were terrazzo and laminate, blown glass and boxing rings, plenty of pinot grigio and cheap cigarettes – and, yes, chairs.

Memphis Big Sur
Peter Shire, Big Sur, 1986, couch in 100% wool, structure in lacquered wood, 1 x 2.1 m. Courtesy: Memphis Srl; photograph: Roberto Gennari 

Active for seven years, Memphis was a neon-lit, pattern-clashing middle finger to the modernist mantra of ‘form follows function’. Their lights, tables, chairs and vases blended the opulent with the tacky, prioritizing sensory experience over design decorum. Despite the zeitgeist that swirled around the movement – inspiring designs from the detective series Miami Vice (1984–90) to Solo Jazz paper cups (1991) – it was a commercial and ideological failure. The democratic design revolution Memphis lusted after was precluded by its own fiendish price point. Unable to reconcile their design philosophy with mass production (and irked by any copycats who attempted to do so), Memphis existed almost exclusively as photographic reproductions to the broader public. The group disbanded in 1987 – a couple of years after its ringleader, Ettore Sottsass, had thrown in the towel – leaving their brand to be regurgitated and ripped off ad nauseam in the fever of postmodernism.

MK Gallery Memphis
'Memphis: Plastic Field', 2020, exhibition view, MK Gallery, Milton Keynes. Courtesy: MK Gallery, Milton Keynes; photograph: Rob Harris 

Conceived as counterweight to a moment of economic crisis and rationalist design, Memphis is regaining traction in the present era of mass unemployment and candy-coloured Instagram feeds. ‘Memphis: Plastic Field’, on show at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, builds upon previous exhibitions at Fondazione Berengo in Venice (2018) and the Musée des Arts décoratifs et du Design in Bordeaux (2019). Featuring 150 design objects by 20 members, the show unfurls haphazardly across five rooms, looking like a trade fair despite its best intentions. There is neither chronology nor distinction; all the work is blended together with saccharine glee. Bisecting the gallery sprawl is a breakout room piled high with television monitors buzzing with clips from teen sitcom Saved by the Bell (1989–93), haute-couture runway shows, MTV logos and postmodern architecture, anchoring the movement in its cross-disciplinary runoff. The Memphis-stuffed interiors of the film Ruthless People (1986) and the neon noir architecture of Miami Vice are not a far cry from Milton Keynes’s glowing red multiplex cinema ziggurat, The Point (1985). As this exhibition aims to make clear, aesthetic, political and philosophical parallels between Memphis and the techno-utopian ‘new town’ of Milton Keynes abound.

‘Like Memphis, Milton Keynes came from a very specific and radical cultural moment,’ suggests Anthony Spira, Director of MK Gallery, which reopened in 2019 after a back-to-the-future renovation by 6a architects. Fay Blanchard, the exhibition’s curator, elaborates: ‘Both were unable to live up to their radical premise.’ Founded in 1967 and designed by hippie architects who aligned its urban grid with the summer solstice, Milton Keynes was nothing if not contradictory: it loved cars, but also nature; it drew inspiration from Neolithic monuments, but its town square was a shopping mall. Equally enamoured with American consumer culture and radical praxis, it was, like Memphis, caught between worlds.

Nathalie Du Pasquier Cerchio
Nathalie Du Pasquier, Cerchio, 1983, printed cotton, 139.7 × 403.9 cm. Courtesy: Memphis Srl; photograph: Studio Azzurro

Ultimately, ‘Memphis: Plastic Field’ remains a very macho presentation of a predominantly white-European, male movement. The group’s four female members – Barbara Radice, Nathalie Du Pasquier, Martine Bedin, and Maria Sanchez – get adequate floorspace, but little is done to flesh them out. Radice's writing and publishing career beyond her role as ‘Memphis spokeswoman’, for instance, remains a mystery in contrast with the detailed biographies afforded to male members of the movement. The exhibition is quick to identify the movement’s borrowings from pop art, Bauhaus and art deco, but glosses over its myriad non-western sources – from the psychedelic patterns of West African wax fabrics that Du Pasquier and George J. Sowden mined for their work to Sottsass’s love affair with Indian architecture.

While offering an electrifying zip round the 20th century’s most extravagant design group, ‘Memphis: Plastic Field’ nonetheless misses a crucial opportunity to engage with the movement’s return. From Valentino to American Apparel, BMW to Supreme, a new breed of Memphis has emerged, trickling into pencil cases, crop tops, tote bags and even murals by London-based artists and designers including Yinka Ilori, Lakwena Maciver, Morag Myerscough and Camille Walala. These reverberations are more accessible, diverse and, in many ways, more compelling than Sottsass’s US$13,000 Carlton bookcase (1981), which was hyped by Karl Lagerfeld. ‘Memphis: Plastic Field’ name-drops a few new protagonists but leaves no floor space for Memphis 2.0 to manifest.

Karl Lagerfeld apartment
Karl Lagerfeld in his Monte Carlo apartment, 1981, from the book Memphis, Research, Experience, Results, Failures and Successes of the New Design (1984). Courtesy: Mode & Wohnen; photograph: Jaques Schumacher

‘We need to pick up the invitation of Memphis to design a new world,’ suggests Blanchard. ‘I don't think today’s designers look anything like the people doing Memphis the first time around – and that’s probably for the better.’ If Memphis was truly a call to actualize an alternative future – an increasingly urgent proposition – the exhibition ought to have given space to the design revolution of tomorrow, rather than bask in Memphis’s nostalgic afterglow.

The reopening date for 'Memphis: Plastic Field' at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, is yet to be announced. The exhibition will run until 25 April 2021. 

Main image: Memphis designers with Masanori Umeda's Tawaraya Bed, 1981. Courtesy: Memphis Post Design Gallery; photograph: © Studio Azzurro

Alice Bucknell is a North American artist and writer based in London. In 2021, she established New Mystics, a collaborative platform for exploring the intersection of magic and technology, featuring texts co-written with the Language AI GPT-3. She has exhibited her video work internationally, recently including the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale, Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Kunsthalle Wien, Ars Electronica, König Galerie, White Cube, and Serpentine Galleries.