It’s the evening of December 11, 1980. A group of young designers and architects has gathered in Ettore Sottsass’s living room. The record Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again by Bob Dylan plays over and over again: thus Memphis was born, with a two-fold reference to the ancient capital of the Egyptian pharaohs and the birthplace of Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley in Tennessee.
A few days later, a revolutionary collection of design objects was discussed and outlined, one which was to take shape over a few months in the drawings of Ettore Sottsass, Aldo Cibic, Matteo Thun, Marco Zanini, Martine Bedin, Michele De Lucchi, Nathalie Du Pasquier, and George Sowden.
The first collection of 55 products of the Memphis-Milano brand, under the guidance of Ettore Sottsass and the artistic direction of Barbara Radice, was presented in Milan on September 19, 1981 at the Arc ’74 showroom of Brunella and Mario Godani at number 2 Corso Europa.
This was the period of the Salone del Mobile, and more than 2,000 people crowded outside the gallery, blocking the city traffic, for what immediately felt like an epoch-making event. The new language mixed elegance and kitsch, dialoguing with absurd and irrational shapes, using plastic laminates with patterns that simulate precious materials, but most of all it introduced the pleasure of play into the rational language of industrial production: Memphis-Milano quickly conquered public and press attention all over the world.
Together with the first nucleus of participants, Andrea Branzi, Alessandro Mendini, Michael Graves, Hans Hollein, Shirō Kuramata, Peter Shire, Masanori Umeda, Arata Isozaki, Terry Jones, Javier Mariscal, Paola Navone, Luigi Serafini, and Bruno Gregori from Studio Alchimia also displayed in this legendary debut.
On the occasion of the Salone del Mobile, Memphis-Milano would present a new collection every year until 1987. Over the years, some of the designers who put their names to Memphis projects include: Thomas Bley, Rudi Haberl, Walter Kirpicsenko, Michael Podgorschek, Daniela Puppa, Christoph Radl, Gerard Taylor, Fabio Bellotti, Robert Mangurian, the American collective Arquitectonica, Maria Sanchez, Nicholas Bewick, Pierangelo Caramia, Beppe Caturegli, Dante Donegani, James Evanson, Giovannella Formica, Shuji Hisada, Massimo Iosa Ghini, James Irvine, Ferruccio Laviani, Giovanni Levanti, Angelo Micheli, Marco Zanuso, Laura Agnoletto, Marzio Rusconi Clerici, Guido Borelli, Johanna Grawunder, Lawrence Laske, Mary Little, Gary Morga, Christophe Pillet, Winfried Scheuer, Marco Susani, and Daniel Weil.
As time went by, the leaflets of the early exhibitions were replaced by illustrated catalogues. The logo designed by Christoph Radl, different for the first three collections, settled in 1985 as that of Memphis-Milano, and that same year Ettore Sottsass left the group. The last exhibition of the Memphis group was ‘Luci Lights’ in 1988: since then no more products have been issued under the Memphis brand.
The company is now managed by Alberto Bianchi Albrici, who purchased it in 1996 from Ernesto Gismondi, owner of Artemide, after ten years as managing director. The projects designed by the Memphis group between 1981 and 1988 are still produced today in unlimited series, in the belief that design should be understood as a means of communication and not as an expression of elitist art.
As a cultural movement, Memphis continues to influence the imagination of the general public, from fashion to the film and television industry. The liberating spirit of Memphis is still a source of inspiration for young designers today: reflections on the concept of design and furnishing, on their limits and aesthetic possibilities, on their social and communicative function and on the creative and productive aspect, as well as on the economic models underpinning them, are now more relevant than ever.
META MEMPHIS 1989/1991
While the creative experience of the Memphis group came to an end in the late 1980s, the entrepreneurial and productive activity of the Memphis company continues.
1989 saw the launch of the Meta Memphis collection, an innovative experiment that involved no longer designers, but internationally renowned artists engaged for the first time in the design of objects and furniture.
Inspired by the Greek word metamorphosis (transformation), the collection rethinks the ways and archetypes of living sedimented in the collective memory through conceptual reappraisals and unusual formal, material, and functional associations.
Alighiero Boetti handwrites the hours on the Orogio wall clock in italics, making it illegible. Pier Paolo Calzolari deconstructs furnishings by mixing incongruous materials and transforming them into surprising objects. Sandro Chia transforms a stuffed chair and a table into monumental sculptures, creating them in bronze. Joseph Kosuth covers a psychoanalytic sofa bed with a fabric that reproduces the frontispiece of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Michelangelo Pistoletto hones down a piece of furniture to its outline, to the point of making it unusable. Franz West creates poetic and unstable pieces using recycled metal materials: the iron rod chair or the stiffened chain lamp. We also find Mimmo Paladino, Maurizio Mochetti, Susana Solano, and Lawrence Weiner.
The second and final collection, in 1991, further explored the themes elaborated in the previous experience. Alighiero Boetti, Franz West, Joseph Kosuth, Mimmo Paladino, Lawrence Weiner, Marco Bagnoli, Mathis Esterházy, Sol LeWitt, Bill Woodrow, and Gerhard Merz featured once again in the project, demonstrating that the linguistic and expressive boundaries of industrial design can be questioned.
POST DESIGN EST. 1997
The Memphis company, under the management of Alberto Bianchi Albrici, decided to historicize and protect the Memphis-Milano collections by ceasing to use the brand for new products. This is why the Post Design brand was founded in 1997. Under the aegis of the new logo, designed by Sottsass, there are designers who previously belonged to the Memphis group, such as Nathalie Du Pasquier, George Sowden and Ettore Sottsass himself, together with some of the most important artists on the international scene, including Pierre Charpin, Denis Santachiara, Nanda Vigo, and Johanna Grawunder, as well as lesser-known young designers, with the aim of providing them with visibility.
Unlike the Memphis-Milano collections, consistent expressions of a single language, each of the Post Design collections has its own stylistic autonomy. While Memphis-Milano represents the ability to bring together various personalities in a powerful collective voice, Post Design is declaredly open to multilingualism, leaving room for individual poetics. Nathalie Du Pasquier designs a remarkable collection of carpets, both in terms of quantity and quality. Richard Woods investigates various aspects of two-dimensional decorativism by applying his famous patterns to furniture and objects. Johanna Grawunder works with light through extreme minimalism. Markus Benesch produces a collection endowed with imagery and meaning. Sottsass himself, through Post Design, investigates new languages that mark a decisive break with the Memphis world. This is how the collections Mobili lunghi and Lo specchio di Saffo came about: rarefied and poetic lights and items of furniture that referencethe world of myth, memory, and dreams.
What’s more, Post Design Gallery is the name of the Milanese gallery that hosts all the initiatives of the Memphis company. The way Post Design works is more like an art gallery than a company: each exhibition tells the story of a coherent project by a single artist or a group of artists, who are also entrusted with the creation of the catalogue, viewed as an integral part of the collection.
Post Design is an ambitious project of open investigation into the future, aimed at opening up new paths and recording changes in progress, in the belief that in design just like in life, nothing should be taken for granted.
THE COMPANY MEMPHIS SRL
Memphis Srl is the owner of the brands Memphis-Milano, Meta-Memphis, and Post Design, reflecting three different moments of its history.
The Memphis-Milano brand originates in the cultural movement founded in 1981 by Ettore Sottsass and a group of designers linked to him by direct acquaintance: many of them were young people who frequented or were members of his studio, along with other internationally renowned designers and architects.
The movement immediately became a worldwide phenomenon, destined to end on a creative level a few years later, in 1988, when the group officially broke up.
From the Memphis experience, the Meta Memphis project came about, giving rise to two collections, in 1989 and 1991, no longer put together by designers but by artists. Meta Memphis developed the philosophical reflection on living that had characterized Memphis, taking it to extremes, producing apparently useless hybrid objects that are both artworks and furnishing accessories.
Since 1997 onwards, the Meta Memphis experience has been followed by the activity of Post Design a production brand, but also the name of the Milanese gallery dedicated to the display and distribution of all the company’s products. Through annual exhibitions, Post Design pursues the aim of recording and documenting transformations in taste and esthetics: hence its laboratory-like, eclectic and non-homogeneous character.
The three brands owned by Memphis Srl, although founded at different times, have since continued to produce the same furniture and objects, following the technical drawings provided by the designers, using the same materials and processes. In this sense, they are not reproductions, but original pieces for all intents and purposes, regardless of the year of production.