Milan in winter is always grey, cold and foggy – and this was certainly the case the December evening of 1980 when Ettore Sottsass met with the designers Lucchi, Cibic, Thun, Zanini and Bedin. Here, the aim of the meeting went well beyond a simple dinner with friends: the designers wanted to create a movement to rebel against the status quo of modernist design. This meant overtaking the minimalism, functionality and sobriety of modernism with a bold design, made of the bright colours of Pop Art, extravagant forms of Art Deco, and kitsch from the 1950s.

The chatter of one of these evenings was accompanied by Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues, the famous song by Bob Dylan. When it came time to find a name for the collective, Sottsass proposed ‘Memphis’ – the city of Tennessee and the birthplace of musicians such as BB King, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, as well as the capital of Ancient Egypt which took its name from god protector of the craftsmen and architects.

A collection of Memphis objects. Zanone photo via Wikimedia Commons A collection of Memphis objects. Zanone photo via Wikimedia Commons

To the surprise of its founders, the need for Memphis was enthusiastically welcomed by designers from all over the world, so much so that many of the 40 designers who collaborated in the collection presented at Milan’s Salone del Mobile in 1981 were foreigners: Nathalie du Pasquier from France, Michael Graves from the United States, Hans Hollein from Germany, Shiro Kuramata from Japan... A clear sign that the need that had driven the birth of the collective was not relegated just to Italy, but was a common necessity for many.

The success of Memphis was not limited to the niche of the creatives of the time, rather, on the contrary, as Alberto Bianchi Albrici, owner of the Memphis Studio since the mid-1990s, said, "Memphis broke everything". In fact, the inauguration of the event on the occasion of the Salone del Mobile had an enormous response, to such an extent that "when we arrived, there was incredible traffic", recalled Martine Bedin in an interview, "and Ettore thought it was a terrorist attack. Shortly thereafter, we discovered that they were all there for us."

View of the ‘Bowie / Collector’ exhibition that preceded the auction of the Bowie Collection at Sotheby's in 2016. The image shows some of the most iconic pieces produced by the Memphis collective, including the ‘First’ chair by Michele De Lucchi. Photo: Sotheby's View of the ‘Bowie / Collector’ exhibition that preceded the auction of the Bowie Collection at Sotheby's in 2016. The image shows some of the most iconic pieces produced by the Memphis collective, including the ‘First’ chair by Michele De Lucchi. Photo: Sotheby's

The 56 pieces of the first collection (made up of lamps, fabrics, furniture) were colourful, exaggerated and almost kitsch, at the limit of good taste. Revolting against all the laws of modernist design led by Mies van der Rohe, the designers had created one of the first examples of Postmodernism: functionality passed into the background, the materials were poor (such as plastic laminate and Venetian terrazzo), desecrating aesthetic. And if this wasn’t enough, in a game of smoke and mirrors, the pieces took their name from the most famous luxury hotels in the world: the Carlton bookcase, the Casablanca cabinet and the Plaza table.

Karl Lagerfeld surrounded by Memphis furniture. Photo via The Cut Karl Lagerfeld surrounded by Memphis furniture. Photo via The Cut

Many famous people also fell in love with the furniture of the collective: among the most enthusiastic was the musician David Bowie alongside the stylist Karl Lagerfeld, both of whose collections were dispersed by Sotheby's in 2016 and 1991 respectively. Although they were very successful, the furnishings did something much more extraordinary than simply make money: they modelled the aesthetics of the '80s, an influence that in recent decades has never been exercised so blatantly.

If you stop for a moment, you can come to understand that the explosive recipe of Memphis has all the typical ingredients of the aesthetics of that 1980s decade: bright colours, bizarre patterns, geometric shapes, and kitsch. There are many examples of how this aesthetic spread like wildfire and ended up coinciding with the culture of the '80s, but it’s enough to look at the first MTV logos (launched at that time) or scenes of Back to the Future to realise the contribution of the group to popular culture.

Once the bomb that had disrupted the design world has been dropped, the group dissolved in 1988. Sottsass had already left three years earlier, fearing that Memphis would mark him for life: "It is a phenomenon born out of cultural and political necessities, that are now gone", he said. “There are times when something happens, and then it's over. That's enough.”

Items from the American Apparel collection x Nathalie du Pasquier, 2014. Photo: Pattern People Items from the American Apparel collection x Nathalie du Pasquier, 2014. Photo: Pattern People

Despite its short life, the influence of the group has never completely exhausted itself. Excluding the ‘90s, the interest in Memphis has always been rather high (the spring / summer 2005 collection of MiuMiu used the patterns of Nathalie du Pasquier, for example), but it is only in recent years that the Memphis Group has returned to the spotlight, thanks to the increasing interest in Italian design and the reevaluation of the '80s, often considered an emblem of bad taste.

Left: Ettore Sottsass, the ‘Carlton’ Bookcase, 1981. Photo: Artcurial. Top right: Michele De Lucchi, ‘Kristall’ Table, 1981. Photo: Bruun Rassmussen. Bottom right: Martine Bedin, ‘Super’ Lamp, 1981. Photo: 1stdbs.com Left: Ettore Sottsass, the ‘Carlton’ Bookcase, 1981. Photo: Artcurial. Top right: Michele De Lucchi, ‘Kristall’ Table, 1981. Photo: Bruun Rassmussen. Bottom right: Martine Bedin, ‘Super’ Lamp, 1981. Photo: 1stdbs.com

This interest is reflected in the secondary market, where Gio Ponti's records are flanked by those of Sottsass and company (with dedicated sales, such as the recent ‘Sottsass Repertorio’ at Artcurial), and with them the artist records.

View of the ‘Plastic Field’ exhibition in which the Berengo Foundation of Venice paid tribute to Memphis. Curated by Jean Blanchaert and Adriano Berengo, it is open to the public until 25 November 2018. Photo: Diffusione Design View of the ‘Plastic Field’ exhibition in which the Berengo Foundation of Venice paid tribute to Memphis. Curated by Jean Blanchaert and Adriano Berengo, it is open to the public until 25 November 2018. Photo: Diffusione Design

Memphis, and the ‘80s, had really never left – though we only realise it now.

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