by Devanshi ShahJul 26, 2021
Milton Keynes, one of the last of Britain’s post-war new towns, provides an ideal setting for this encyclopaedic show plunging into the iconoclastic pleasures of the Memphis Group. Established in 1981 and fizzling out seven years later, the radical design collective offered a joyous rebuke to the high modernism still permeating much of architecture and design at the time. And Milton Keynes, with its low-rise Miesian architecture, empty boulevards and gridded plan (and, to be fair, its green space), embodied the increasingly stale obsession with functionalism, form and taste that this eclectic, international grouping, led by ageing Italian superstar Ettore Sottsass, was reacting against.
To step across the threshold of MK Gallery’s new venue – itself an adroit update of 1970s modernism – into its ample exhibition spaces is to be immersed in an extraordinary effusion of Memphis’s playful, provocative designs. Over 150 pieces have been assembled, from furniture and lighting to textiles and tableware, many of which are deserving of that much maligned word, iconic. Two such are Masanori Umeda’s tatami-matted Tawaraya bed – a boxing ring that acts as party venue and personal sanctuary, and once adorned Karl Lagerfeld’s Monaco penthouse; and Sottsass’s colourful Carlton, a mesmerising laminated-MDF deity with a rather dubious claim to the role of room divider, which had a place in David Bowie’s extensive design collection.
Both exemplify the group’s desire, as stated by its artistic director Barbara Radice, to “turn a piece of furniture into a complex system of communication”. Other exhibits, including many amid the generous profusion of glassware and ceramics, are lesser known. This welcome breadth allows visitors to appreciate not only the garish colours, bold patterns and simple geometries of Memphis, but also the sheer range of cross-cultural influences – Sumerian and Mesopotamian, African and Indian, Pop Art and New Wave, Neoclassical and Art Deco – embodied in these powerful sculptural forms with their exuberant, inexpensive surfaces.
The youthful core originally gathered by Sottsass – Aldo Cibic, Matteo Thun, Marco Zanini, Martine Bedin, Michele De Lucchi, Nathalie Du Pasquier and George Sowden – were joined for the group’s first show in Milan by an additional roll call of creative talent, among them such acclaimed architects as Michael Graves, Hans Hollein and Arata Isozaki.
Some, including Graves and the multi-talented Spanish designer Javier Mariscal, soon departed, the latter having contributed to the wittily streamlined yet strangely austere Hilton trolley. Such losses were soon made good by fresh cohorts, some of them familiar names, others less so – in total, 56 designers participated in the Memphis project.
Sadly, Sottsass’s ambition to reach mass markets at affordable prices proved elusive. Despite increased efforts to achieve simplicity in appearance and construction, the group’s products remained craft objects catering to, and helping to create, a new, gallery-based market for design as art, rather undermining its critique of consumerism. Even so, the popular impact of Memphis proved undeniable and enduring, as evidenced here by screens looping such 1980s classics as Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Ruthless People.
There are unexpected and seemingly out-of-place pleasures to be had at Memphis: Plastic Field, many dating from the mid-1980s, for instance Marco Zanini’s striking Roma, a throne-like moulded-fibreglass chair with an iridescent green finish, or Massimo Iosa Ghini’s Otello, a refined armchair with a fluid futurist aesthetic in black leather, chromium-plated metal and lacquered wood.
The floor lighting, with its attenuated metal uprights topped by small bursts of colour, gets a little lost amidst this swagger, yet Sottsass’s curvaceous Tree Tops and Bedin’s clock-like Splendid are brimming with enchanting character. And the latter’s famous Super – her “small dog” on wheels with its comb of bare lightbulbs – is perhaps the pinnacle of Memphis’s dual mission to create “emotional objects”, and ones that would act as “aerobics for lazy or drowsy cells”, to quote two more of Radice’s redolent phrases.
It is perhaps a shame that the exhibition offers no narrative. The designs mingle together irrespective of medium and authorship; no sketches or prototypes have been sourced. In particular, the rejection of chronology spurns a unique opportunity to explore the overall arc of the Memphis Group – its accumulation and depletion of contributors; its darker corners and contradictions; its ambivalent relationship with postmodernism; the disjunction between economy and industry, luxury and art; and the inevitable waning of its vigour, exemplified by Sottsass’s own departure in 1985.
However, there is a logic at play here. Not only is the required information available to the assiduous in copious wall texts, but the exhibition’s adoption of the aesthetics and layouts of the showroom – complete with black plastic pot plants dotted on black lawns – is fitting both for a movement that rejected antiquarianism and affectation, and for designs that remain in production rather than gaining value in dusty archives.
Sometimes, it is possible to lose track of what design means, and in particular how “good design” is to be defined, but to enter these galleries and not experience a burst of joy, a moment of release, would require a cold heart indeed. Whatever else, Memphis fulfilled its promise, as voiced by Sottsass, “to open up the possibilities of design”.