It was on the evening of 11 December 1980. In the living room of his home in Milan, Ettore Sottsass welcomed colleagues, designers and architects, to talk about new forms of expression.
The name Memphis was chosen because it is the city in Tennessee where Elvis Presley lived, but also the capital of Ancient Egypt.
Ettore’s friends on hand that evening were Martine Bedin, Aldo Cibic, Michele De Lucchi, Nathalie Du Pasquier, Matteo Thun, and George J. Sowden. Memphis was later also joined by Andrea Branzi, Shiro Kuramata, Marco Zanini, Peter Shire, Gerard Taylor, Masanori Umeda, Arquitectonica, Michael Graves, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, Javier Mariscal.
On 19 September 1981, at the gallery Arc '74 during the Salone del Mobile in Milan 55 pieces were shown, including furniture, lamps and ceramic objects. Three months later, over 400 periodicals, on a worldwide scale, paid tribute to the success of Memphis.
Memphis in the 1980s – building on the experiences of Radical Design of the 1960s – experimented with new languages, making it possible to redefine the anthropological relations between people and objects.
This Nuovo Design fully responded to the need to reflect the requirements of a complex society. It was no longer sufficient for an object to be simply “functional”; the object was now charged with symbolic, poetic and affective meanings.
With Memphis, forms balanced between pop culture, high culture and ironic classicism merge in products based on a flamboyant mixture of these factors. A disruptive aesthetic, between kitsch and elegance.
Materials played a key role in this expressive attitude that activated the sensory channels of users. Use was made of contrasting materials: innovative ingredients like the decorative laminates of Abet Laminati – decorated by the designers themselves – were combined with precious substances like briar.
The aim of Memphis was to create a “platform", a workshop, an observatory for critical and design reflections, against the aesthetics, materials and production modes of industrial design.
To explore the expressive and cultural possibilities of design beyond marketing, Memphis responded to the need of companies to develop a new production strategy focused on small “trend markets,” to produce new design objects conceived not for the mass market, but for a “selected” audience.
These products stand out for the high level of “emotional value” they are able to transmit, which goes well beyond functionality and ergonomics (though those factors are present). Not just “function” then, but also “emotional impact” to: update and rejuvenate the language of design and architecture; to challenge the dogmas of functionalism and industrial design; to celebrate the banal and the everyday dimension; to break down the taboos of good taste. To generate optimism, with the desire to change the world.
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