Memphis: the elegance of kitsch

40 years after its birth, Vitra Design Museum Gallery celebrates with an exhibition on the phenomenon that changed the parameters of industrial design

Memphis Team, Vitra Design Museum - Photo © Masanori Umeda, Studio Azzurro, with kind permission of Memphis, Milano
Memphis Team, Vitra Design Museum - Photo © Masanori Umeda, Studio Azzurro, with kind permission of Memphis, Milano

Though its span of activity was short – from 1981 to 1987 – the design universe was never the same. Vitra Design Museum Gallery at Weil am Rhein, Germany, celebrates the disruptive impact of the Memphis phenomenon on the creative scene, 40 years later, with the exhibition ‘Memphis: 40 Years of Kitsch and Elegance’ curated by Mateo Kries, until 23 January 2022.

Ettore Sottsass - Memphis, Vitra Design Museum - Photo © Marirosa Ballo, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021 for all designs by Ettore Sottsass
Ettore Sottsass – Memphis, Vitra Design Museum – Photo © Marirosa Ballo, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021 for all designs by Ettore Sottsass

Inspired by a Bob Dylan song and triggered by the initiative of Ettore Sottsass, the group of designers has included names that form a remarkable list today: Michele De Lucchi, Nathalie Du Pasquier, Michael Graves, Shiro Kuramata, Martine Bedin, Barbara Radice, Alessandro Mendini, Matteo Thun, Arata Isozaki, Javier Mariscal, Aldo Cibic

An explosive and irreverent crew, defying the canons of functionalism and industrial design, reinterpreted through an experimental language that blends pop culture with the aesthetic of advertising and incursions of kitsch, in a spirit of great creative freedom. The subjects are furnishings, lamps, bowls, drawings, sketches and photographs, referencing Art Deco and Pop Art, reinvented with geometric forms, garish colors and wild patterns, jarring combinations paying homage to the banal and the everyday, breaking with the taboos of ‘good taste.’ And helped along by the information society, which was growing by leaps and bounds.

Karl Lagerfeld - Memphis, Vitra Design Museum - Photo © Jacques Schumacher, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021 for all designs by Ettore Sottsass
Karl Lagerfeld – Memphis, Vitra Design Museum – Photo © Jacques Schumacher, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021 for all designs by Ettore Sottsass

This concentrate of irony was noticed by Karl Lagerfeld, consecrated as a sophisticated fashion icon, who in 1982 marked a turning point by furnishing his apartment in Monte Carlo with the latest Memphis creations. These items were provocative not just in their forms but also in their materials, made by applying colorful plastic laminates – chosen precisely for their ‘lack of culture’ – with patterns that became a true signature.

Luciano Paccagnella, gallery Arc ’74 in Milan, September 1981 © Luciano Paccagnella
Luciano Paccagnella, gallery Arc ’74 in Milan, September 1981 © Luciano Paccagnella

The first collection was presented at Galleria Arc’74 in Milan, in September 1981, with Ernesto Gismondi as president, entering into contact with manufacturers. As sudden as the stroke of genius, which thrives on the present and never on the future, the phenomenon faded as soon as its purpose had been achieved – namely to break out of set boundaries – with the abandonment first of Sottsass, leading to the definitive disbanding of the group. Unpredictably enough, however, time has not forgotten their exploits.