Has there ever been any worse design than Memphis? Or any better? The provocative, self-consciously cartoonish furniture collective that splattered garish colour over the high-end galleries, fashion stores, hotel lobbies and loft apartments of the 1980s still splits opinion.

But those pieces that caused such a furore then are now in museums all over the world, their colours still as vivid, their forms still as joyously ridiculous as 40 years ago.

The work continues to make waves — as well as big money at auction — and is being recognised with Memphis: Plastic Field, an exhibition at Milton Keynes’s MK Gallery. It had been due to open this week, but has been postponed until it is safe to do so.

It was 1980 when Ettore Sottsass invited a group of young designers to create a new movement and a new aesthetic. Or, at least, a new collaborative studio. They gathered in the small Milan apartment that Sottsass shared with his wife Barbara Radice, sitting around a table covered in his Bacterio patterned laminate, a sickly morass of black squiggles like organisms under a microscope.

Sottsass was provoking a younger generation of designers to kick back at what they all saw as a moribund late-Modernist scene in the city.

A meeting of the Memphis group in Asolo, Italy, December 1983 (founder Ettore Sottsass is fifth from the left)
A meeting of the Memphis group in Asolo, Italy, December 1983 (founder Ettore Sottsass is fifth from the left) © Courtesy Memphis Srl

Radical Italian designers had, in the 1960s and 1970s, already questioned the cycle of capital and consumption, the churn of Milan’s massive furniture industry as well as its ponderous architecture.

Practices such as Superstudio, Archizoom and UFO presented “critical utopias” including endless gridded landscapes rolling out over green fields or deserts, collages of hairy hippies and suburban housewives wandering the radical Modernist version of the yellow brick road. By the late 1970s, most of them had drifted back into practice, growing up, teaching, designing housing or lamps. 

Sottsass and his friends were bored by the industry, its ruthless output and sleek but soulless products. They wanted something new.

Postmodernism, the hybrid style that adapted visual languages with gusto, embracing everything from classicism and ancient Egyptian to Russian Constructivism and Art Deco, was making waves at the time, steering a line between the popular and the radical, treading on toes, but only lightly. PoMo critiqued the system from squarely within it.

Show-off style: the Memphis collection at Milan’s Post Design Gallery
Show-off style: the Memphis collection at Milan’s Post Design Gallery © Luca Miserocchi, Courtesy Memphis Srl

What came out of that evening in the little flat would be Milan’s contribution to PoMo, an exuberant pop cocktail of bad taste with a surprising afterlife. 

While they talked, Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” was allegedly stuck on repeat on the turntable. They had their name. It was a good gag too. “Mobile” is Italian for furniture — “movables”. And Memphis made it move. In Ancient Egyptian, incidentally, “Memphis” derived from “mn-nfr” or “enduring and beautiful”. Well, enduring anyway.

The town of Milton Keynes is a contemporary of the movement, born of the same impulses. An urban creature balancing on the edge of late Modernism and Postmodernism, between the social and the commercial, looking to both British pastoral traditions and American confidence.

The MK Gallery’s 2019 redesign by architects 6a makes those influences clear. Its vivid colours, custard yellows and postbox reds, and the big circle of a window seem to belong to that moment of uncertainty and change, between the barricades of the 1960s and the big business of the 1980s.

An exhibition on Memphis was due to open this week at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes — itself exemplifying something of the Memphis aesthetic — but has been postponed because of Covid-19
An exhibition on Memphis was due to open this week at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes — itself exemplifying something of the Memphis aesthetic — but has been postponed because of Covid-19 © Iwan Baan

At the heart of the exhibition will be the piece that embodies Memphis more than any other: the Carlton book-shelf-cum-room-divider Sottsass designed in 1981. It was everything that good Modernist design was not supposed to be.

Made not from solid, traditional materials but from MDF covered in vinyl laminate, it is an aggressively non-functional item. High design and low craft, Milanese provocation executed in the materials of the mass-produced kitchen.

You might, perhaps, fit a dozen books on it, or a couple of knick-knacks, something in the undersized drawers, but that’s it. This is furniture as art object, statement of intent. And the intent is a Milanese middle finger to good taste. 

Although it is often portrayed as a revolution, Memphis was not quite that. Sottsass had been designing provocative Pop shockers for at least a decade, along with his more restrained, elegant and practical products for big business, most notably Olivetti and Poltronova.

Gillo Dorfles had laid the theoretical groundwork with his 1968 book Kitsch: the World of Bad Taste. Studio Alchimia (in which Sottsass himself had been involved) had set up in 1976 and pioneered much of this language of garish colours, suprematist shapes, historical forms and strange symbols. 

Carlton room divider by Ettore Sottsass (1981): ‘aggressively non-functional, high design and low craft’
Carlton room divider by Ettore Sottsass (1981): ‘aggressively non-functional, high design and low craft’

But Memphis made it cool. Karl Lagerfeld kitted out his Monaco apartment in Memphis. He had a Carlton and a boxing ring bed (by Masanori Umeda), a banana-yellow sharkfin-legged Memphis Milan Brazil desk by Peter Shire and a Beverley Cabinet (Sottsass), with its single absurd lightbulb. These were no mere highlights, no accent pieces — Lagerfeld’s entire interior was Memphis.

David Bowie became an avid collector. A hundred of his mostly Memphis pieces were sold after his death in 2016 at Sotheby’s in London for almost £1.4m.

When the New York show Memphis at Midnight opened in 1982, the Chelsea loft in which it was being held saw crowds of more than 3,000 gather for a glimpse of the new aesthetic. Memphis designs and knock-offs popped up everywhere, from music videos and sitcoms to corporate lobbies and yuppie lofts.

As a collective it was remarkable, the list of designers eye-popping. Michele DeLucchi, Aldo Cibic, Andrea Branzi, George Sowden, Nathalie du Pasquier, Michael Graves, Shiro Kuramata, Javier Mariscal, Peter Shire, Martine Bedin, Alessandro Mendini . . . and on and on. It was a stellar cast that came together for one great visual performance and set the scene for the show-off decade. 

D’Antibes cabinet by George J Sowden, 1981
D’Antibes cabinet by George J Sowden, 1981

Memphis flowered briefly but brightly. And the press, the wealthy, the collectors came like bees for nectar. This was design led not by industry (the traditional Milanese model in which Sottsass was used to working) but by publicity. The pieces were their own marketing, striking images of enigmatic objects that the press could not help but splash all over.

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Yet the company was never a commercial success. It refused to make limited editions but the pieces were too expensive for the mass market. By 1985, Sottsass had left the group and it dissolved in 1988. But it was not the end. All of Memphis’s 150 designs are still being produced — and sold. 

I asked Sottsass’s widow, Barbara Radice, herself a critic and writer, to what extent the Memphis moment had been a provocation. “It must be what everybody thought and never dared ask,” she says.

Tahiti table lamp, Ettore Sottsass
Tahiti table lamp, Ettore Sottsass

“Ettore and everyone were serious and excited about the whole affair, refounding the language of design, the change in the mood, using colour and decoration, maybe asymmetrical shapes and unusual materials. Everyone was happy to be free of the old mood and to be able to breathe. The whole world was waiting for an update of the language of design. And provocation . . . I’d rather call it humour . . . isn’t it all part of the game?”

And that is, at least from this distance, exactly what it looked like. With their caricatured boldness, bright colours, chequerboards and pastels, nursery shapes and cartoon demeanour, Memphis provided the board and a few pieces to play the game of life with. 

Kristall end table, Michele DeLucchi, 1981
Kristall end table, Michele DeLucchi, 1981 © Pariano Angelantonio

“Ettore thought that design should help people become more aware of their existence: the space they live in, how to arrange it and their own presence in it,” said Radice in a 2014 interview with Disegno magazine. “He used to say that any movement, taking the example of Cubism, should not last more than five years.”

The movement might be over but Memphis is still very much with us. 

Italian radicalism and design as revolution

Enzo Mari © Mondadori via Getty Images

Italian design might now be synonymous with top-end furniture stores and high fashion, but between about 1968 and 1980 it was the locus of radical anti-consumerism. 

Enzo Mari, who died aged 88 last month, was a life-long communist who injected politics into his designs — notably with the autoprogettazione project, a booklet of designs distributed for free, illustrating how to make a range of furniture using only nails and planks.

Despite working as a product designer for big companies, Mari always resisted the fetishisation of design as art and refused to show his work in galleries, saying it belonged in homes and on the streets. 

When the US unexpectedly withdrew from the Milan Triennale in 1968, its director, the architect Giancarlo Di Carlo, decided to use the empty space for an installation in solidarity with the ongoing Parisian student protests. He filled it with rubble and piled it high with white goods, as symbols of out-of-control capitalist consumerism.

But even this radical gesture wasn’t enough for the Italian students, who staged a sit-in, shutting the show down completely.

At the same time Florentine architects Archizoom and Superstudio were making images of egalitarian utopias realised more through ideas than design. They were provocative pictures of endless grids and sparse landscapes populated with unknowable technologies. 

Italy embodied both ends of the spectrum: sprezzatura and socialism, design as fashion and as revolution. Memphis represented an abandonment of those politics. It was radical form-making but its intent was aesthetic, a framing of lifestyle, the “end of boring”.

It squashed the idea of Italian design as something provocative and dangerous under a riot of garish colour and form, and was easily and completely subsumed into the culture of consumerism.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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