Memphis: Avant-garde and the celebrity designer

By Penny Craswell

The news that David Bowie was a big collector of Memphis (over 100 items will go on auction at Sotheby’s in London on 11 November) makes sense – both were on the cutting edge of style in the 1980s and there is a little something of Ziggy Stardust in many of the designs.

Metropole clock, Memphis, designed by George J. Sowden, 1982
Metropole clock, Memphis, designed by George J. Sowden, 1982

Reflecting on Memphis, the Milan-based collective led by Ettore Sottsass that launched onto the international design stage in 1981, it is interesting to note its place in design history. 

The intense commodification of design that came with globalisation in the 1980s shifted the focus from the design object itself to the experience of design, as part of the “experience economy” – a phenomenon in which memorable experiences form the product, rather than an actual object. In this scenario, the marketer, but also increasingly the designer, is identified as a creator of experiences and business opportunities. The consumer need not be able to afford to buy the furniture, instead they can just “buy into” design instead, via images in magazines and museums – and these days this includes the internet and social media.

Memphis is a perfect example of this shift to the commodification of the designer. While Sottsass’s early work under the banner of Radical Design (or Counter-Design) had been anti-consumerist, his work for Memphis was more commercial. Funded by Abet Laminati, who provided the finish used on the first wave of products, the Memphis designs were perceived as friendly, animated and toy-like. These are not functional furniture pieces – rather the works are perfect for appearing in the pages of magazines. In the first chapter of the catalogue for the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt suggest that, “like other Memphis objects, [Sottsass’s] Casablanca and Carlton sideboards … were made principally for the purpose of taking a photo.”

Peter Shire, 'Big Sur' Sofa, 1986
‘Big Sur’ Sofa, Memphis, designed by Peter Shire, 1986

Images of the designers themselves posing with their furniture pieces were published, including an image of the Memphis designers piled together within the Tawaraya boxing ring bed. The result of these glossy images, focussing on the designers as much as the objects themselves, was a flurry of media attention. Responding to the first collection alone, more than 100 articles and several exhibitions were produced, discussing what the Memphis catalogue declared to be the “New International Style” or “new design”.

Though it might seem ironic that what began as a radical movement that attempted to dismantle and critique conservatism ended as a commercial, mainstream movement that complied with conservative values, it is actually a common phenomenon. In his book The Culture of Design, Guy Julier notes that “The oscillation of the designer between… discomfort with the conditions of high-design production and compliance with its consumption … may even be a condition of European design stardom of the late twentieth century.”

Memphis was avant-garde, but its legacy may not be what Sottsass intended. Thanks to the media attention, this collective of designers helped put the spotlight on the celebrity designer, making way for Philippe Starck and all the rest, positioned as enfant terribles, using the shock tactics of an artistic avant-garde while adhering to the status quo of design as an expensive object.

More on David Bowie’s Memphis Collection

 

Don' Table Lamp, Memphis, designed by Ettore Sottsass, 1977
Don’ Table Lamp, Memphis, designed by Ettore Sottsass, 1977
Adesso Pèro bookcase, Memphis, designed by Ettore Sottsass, 1992
Adesso Pèro bookcase, Memphis, designed by Ettore Sottsass, 1992
Enorme telephone, Memphis, designed by Ettore Sottsass, 1986
Enorme telephone, Memphis, designed by Ettore Sottsass, 1986

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