Before There Was Target, There Was The Memphis Movement

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The International Contemporary Furniture Fair is a design-addict’s Oz. If you made your way through the maze to the back of the Javits Center this Sunday, you would have found the Lion — a heavily bearded Michele De Lucchi — sitting down for a chat with Glenda, embodied in the stylish, shining Paola Antonelli. Manufacturers, fabricators, designers, and the PR people who support them filled the audience to hear Antonelli, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art, speak with renowned Italian designer De Lucchi.

Famous for his participation in many groundbreaking design movements, such as the avant-garde, late ’70s industrial design collective Studio Alchimia, De Lucchi is perhaps best known for his involvement in the Memphis movement of the early ’80s. Founded by colorful designer and architect Ettore Sottsass and his troupe of young twenty-somethings in Milan, the “Memphis” style is marked by its loud colors, squiggly lines, and use of such gauche materials as plastics. Memphis pieces debuted to much criticism, but also excitement. Designer Jasper Morrison remembers breaking into “a kind of cold sweat” at a Memphis group design exhibition in 1981. “It was the weirdest feeling,” he said, “you were in one sense repulsed by the objects, or I was, but also immediately freed by the sort of total rule-breaking.”The style became ubiquitous.

“In six months, we got 52 covers of magazines with Memphis,” recalled De Lucchi this past Sunday, “I wonder if another phenomenon like that would be possible today.” An era of postmodernism in product design had arrived, no matter what the critics thought. The group’s arrival on the scene was so pioneering and polarizing that Antonelli believes the moment warrants a film. “I’m envisioning a really well-done movie about Memphis — I mean really well-done — with all the gossip going on at that time in it,” she said.

The movement was originally dubbed “New International Style,” by Sottsass, but the group changed the name after the Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” repeated over and over on a broken record the night of their first meeting. While the designers were certainly influenced by the youth-oriented pop culture of the ’60s and ’70s (“We wanted to break everything that was classical and traditional,” explained De Lucchi), the group was more in line with the coming capitalistic culture of the ’80s than one would think. The Memphis designers eschewed traditional artistic feelings about mass production vs. rarity, and the potential for earning money through the mainstream.

“With Memphis, we wanted to do something that could be produced, sold all over the world,” explained De Lucchi. In the end, he confessed, “…none of us got any money, but just to be able to produce 650 products — lamps, furniture, jewelry, underwear…” was a revolution in the field. Rather than feeling dehumanized by the assembly-line quality of mass production, the Memphis team were freed, invigorated by it. They were espousing “Design for All” long before it was Target’s stock-and-trade, and the sheer amount of pieces produced meant one could try things — experiment — even if the resulting items were “simple and naïve products,” as De Lucchi now claims.

Today, in addition to large-scale interiors and architectural projects, De Lucchi designs for such innovating firms as Artemide, Kartell, and Olivetti — the Balenciaga, Dior, and Saint Laurent of the product design world. And he certainly still believes in the power of companies and the importance of production in design. “You can not design for the world if you don’t believe in the industry — in the positive side of the industry,” he said, “You have to love the industry, because through the industry you can bring positivity and good solutions for the world.”

Now there’s a speaker who knows his audience