Featured in the current Met Breuer exhibition, Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical the Italian architect and designer created a vast body of work spanning more than six decades, and inspired the next generation of great designers. Showcasing a range of media—including architectural drawings, interiors, furniture, machines, ceramics, glass, jewelry, textiles and pattern, painting, and photography, the exhibition juxtaposes the objects that inspired Sottsass with his own work, and in turn work by designers inspired by him. Here, we take a look at just one period in Sottsass’s career.
The birth of Memphis
In 1981, a group of friends gathered in the Milan apartment of Ettore Sottsass. Comprising designers, writers, and artists, the group spent an evening casually debating the future of design. Over the course of the evening, they imagined ways of disrupting the aesthetic principles of Modernism, and in doing so, forming the basis of what would become known as Memphis.
Why Memphis? Stories differ slightly, but it’s most commonly accepted that the name was taken from the Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” which played during one of the group’s first meetings. The record kept getting stuck on the words “Memphis blues again,” which struck Sottsass as symbolic, and so the group agreed to name themselves after the song.
In February 1981, the group met to present sketches to one another. Ripe with energy and inspiration after their initial meetings, over 100 designs were presented, providing certainty to those involved that Memphis would come to fruition later that year.
In their rebellion against traditional interior design of the 1970s and early 1980s, the group exhibited 55 objects in September 1981 in Milan’s Design Gallery under the name Memphis. Featuring 31 pieces of furniture, 11 ceramics, 10 lamps, and three clocks, the exhibition turned the design world on its side, garnering as many as 2,000 visitors for the opening—crowds so vast and dense that some of the designers of Memphis themselves couldn’t gain entry to the event. Almost overnight, the controversial designs of Memphis gained blockbuster media attention.
Among the initial furniture designs presented was Sottsass’ Carlton bookcase, which continues to be one of the most recognizable Memphis designs. Its unconventional form makes an immediate visual impact, combining color, shape, and texture in a highly energetic way. Futhermore, the Carlton showcases the use of laminate—a key material for Memphis—and reimagines the way a bookcase can function, including opportunities for books to stack vertically, horizontally, and at an angle, depending on the user’s needs.
Irreverent and provocative, Memphis designs are characterized by juxtaposition of color—pastels paired with neutrals, neon, and jewel tones; pattern; and high/low materials including plastic, laminate, marble, wood, fiberglass, stainless steel, and other metals. Building on the visual look, the tactile feel and end-user experience of each object was intrinsic to Memphis design.
Sottsass himself largely refused to define Memphis, but went on the record to say that the movement was “quoting from suburbia,” a nod to its inspired reinvention of utilitarian objects and use of mass materials like laminate—then (and still today) widely used in kitchens and bathrooms—in unexpected ways.
Similarly, Sottsass’s wife, the art historian Barbara Radice, published a book on Memphis in 1984 stating, “When a Memphis designer makes a design, he or she does not merely define a product that must contain, pour, light, support, hold or rest. He or she thinks, visualizes, and formally engineers the design as a set of expressive signs with certain cultural contents.”
In his 60s at the time, Sottsass envisioned Memphis as an international movement and invited talented young designers, mostly in their 20s, to join the collaborative movement. Without a formal set of constraints or guiding principles, members of the collective presented their designs to the group and managed not only the design, but also the production, photography, and marketing of their work in order to make it commercially viable.
Ettore Sottsass: The Man Behind the Movement
Sottsass was born in Austria, and trained as an architect in Turin, Italy. Outside his formal training, Sottsass explored a love of painting, photography, and ceramics—all of which would inform his signature use of color and texture evident in iconic designs like the red Olivetti “Valentine” typewriter for which he would become famous. Sottsass is quoted as saying, “Color can arise and be in harmony with the imperatives of structure, without destroying it,” pointing to the essential relationship between form and color central to his design philosophy.
From early in his career, Sottsass strived to find opportunities for innovation and evolution of existing forms. His work with Olivetti and with emerging technology like the Elea computer exemplify his focus on modularity and emphasis on facilitation of human interaction with an object or machine seen throughout his body of work. Central to this relationship of man and object was the issue of context and space. Even when sketching, Sottsass imagined his initial designs for furniture in an environment, considering how the object would behave in various scenarios.
Over his 60-year career, Sottsass would be described in many ways by the press, including “paradigm-shifting,” “ground-breaking,” and “experimental,” credited with disrupting the cannon of traditional interior and furniture design. His designs defined his public perception—most typically described as “iconic” by others—though Sottsass declined most opportunities to speak about his work.
The Future of Memphis
Following their September 1981 presentation, Memphis members Alessandro Mendini, Martine Bedin, Andrea Branzi, Aldo Cibic, Michele de Lucchi, Nathalie du Pasquier, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, Shiro Kuramata, Matteo Thun, Javier Mariscal, Luciano Paccagnella, Peter Shire, George Sowden, Marco Zanini, Paola Navone, and others continued to present designs ranging from furniture to fabric, glass, ceramics, jewelry, and more over the next 10 years, continuing to push and explore the essence of Memphis design.
Representing a 360-degree approach to experimental design, Memphis grew beyond traditional furniture and home objects to commercial spaces like stores and restaurants, as well as to freestanding homes and apartment buildings, and even to jewelry.
Memphis reached its peak in 1985, at which time Sottsass opted to leave the group in order to pursue other projects, most notably architecture.
Though Memphis began to wind down, its impact on the wider world of art and design was just beginning. Cultural icons like David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld famously collected Memphis throughout the 1990s, and pop culture took cues from Memphis as well—incorporating inspiration from Memphis into set and costume designs for television shows and movies.
Today’ s artists and designers continue to draw inspiration from Memphis. See below to explore select items inspired by Memphis and learn about the artists who created them.
All items are available for purchase at The Met Breuer or by calling 800-662-3397.