11 December 1980, Mr. Sottsass `s residence, Milan. Bob Dylan`s Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again is playing on repeat. A group of Italian architects and designers are discussing the future of design. A movement which, in its short life, will shake to the core the cold and rational modernism that had been dominating the design world for the last decades, is born.
Situated at the intersection of Pop Art, popular culture, 50s kitsch and Art Deco, the collaborative design practice developed one of the most recognizable style of the 20th century. Although Memphis never published an official manifesto, the group elaborated a visual vocabulary characterized by playful, geometrical forms, unusual proportions, bold colors and newly developed materials such as various laminates, which they used to mimic wood or marble. But what really propelled their designs into the vertigo that followed their launching was the abrupt break from the obsessive concept of functionality. Ettore Sottsass and his fellow designers, among which Michele de Lucchi, Alessandro Mendini, Nathalie du Pasquier and Andrea Branzi, proposed an approach that infused life into work, that felt whimsical, exuded humour and challenged the “good taste”. Their work wasn`t based entirely around functionality, but on attitude, aiming towards stirring a reaction and creating a mood. As a result, the public was left without the option of remaining neutral and the movement aroused strong reactions that echoed miles away from its birth epicenter. In this regard, the well known minimalist designer Jasper Morrison, stated:”It was the weirdest feeling…You were in one sense repulsed by the objects, or I was, but also immediately freed by the sort of total rule-breaking”.
Although Memphis products never reached the masses as their creators hoped to, the spirit of Memphis inspired the design stratosphere, and nowadays, these pieces are extremely coveted by collectors, their value being highly enhanced by their scarcity. Some of them found their nest in the collections of such taste-makers as Helmut Newton or Karl Lagerfeld. During the last years, the postmodern aesthetic knew a much talked about revival and a growing number of designers found inspiration in the freshness and boldness of its concepts
I assume that, if you`ve read up to here, the Memphis spirit has put its spell on you too and who knows, you might be on the verge of becoming a Memphis micro-collector. To ease your digging process, I`ll give you a tip: head to Eclectico Studio and have a look at the pieces in their collection. With the risk of sounding a bit cheesy, considering the approaching lovers holiday, I must confess that the Valentine typewriter is one of my all time favourite design pieces. This brightly colored, lightweight, portable typewriter, which entered production in 1969, anticipated the Memphis manifesto and was a truly groundbreaking design for its time, reinventing what used to be until then, just plain traditional office equipment. Sottsass believed that the success of an object is not related purely to its functionality, but owes a lot to its emotional impact: “When I was young, all we ever heard was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism. It`s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting”. With its lipstick-red plastic case and marketed as a loyal companion, there is no doubt this piece raised to the challenge, becoming a symbol of emotional design. In a completely digitalized world, the Valentine typewriter becomes the analogue communication station that helps you break the pattern and leave your loved one written messages, from haikus to daily grocery store shopping reminder.