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Why the Post-Modern Design Memphis Movement Is Now Entering a New Era

With David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld among Memphis’ most passionate collectors, WWD Weekend explores the past and the future of a movement-turned-brand that injected energy into a design world mired in old codes.

Why the Post-Modern Design Memphis Movement Is Now Entering a New Era

Members of the Memphis movement. Ettore Sottsass sits top right.

MILAN — Bar Jamaica in Brera, Italy, where a dash of attitude is served with every Negroni cocktail, was one of the key meeting places for a movement that shook the furniture and collectible art world more than 40 years ago. The pillars of the Memphis movement were discussed in this dark wood-lined, fil rouge of a bar that continues to attract design pioneers just like it did the late Italian architect Ettore Sottsass and his milieu back in the ’70s.

With its pop colors, uplifting forms and electric patterns, it’s hard to believe political and social chaos once cast a shadow over this inspiring scene where Memphis came to be. In 1980, when Sottsass, then in his 60s, got a group of young architects and designers together to discuss a cosmic break from the old school cycle, Italy had just begun to heal after almost two decades marked by episodes of terrorism.

“When I arrived in ’77, Milan was a dead city and after 9 p.m. there was nobody on the streets because of all the violence the left and right wings started in the late ’70s. Somehow, with Memphis there was a new light on the horizon,” recalls Memphis member Christoph Radl, who worked under Sottsass in his 20s as a graphic designer and designed the movement’s logo.

Together with Sottsass Associati, Radl later founded 1984 Italiana di Comunicazione, a creative avant-garde advertising agency. Within the Memphis movement, Radl was joined by a roster of designers that included architects Aldo Cibic, Matteo Thun, English designer George Sowden and French artist Nathalie Du Pasquier. Today, Radl is also the cofounder and creative director of Cabana Magazine.

For people who knew Sottsass best, it would be remiss to talk about the Memphis movement without discussing his long-career at Olivetti, the historic typewriter-to-computer firm where he was most famously known for the cherry red Valentine portable typewriter and the Synthesis 45 modular office system.

Throughout the ’60s and the ’70s a key member of his team was Montreal-native Albert Leclerc, who today is a renowned designer, academic and served as Olivetti’s longtime corporate identity director. Now 89, Leclerc is sitting at his dining room table near surrounded by blown-glass Memphis vases, one of the first Memphis side tables and his own Crayola-colored “Palingenesis” sculptures.

Why the Post-Modern Design Memphis Movement Is Now Entering a New Era

Ettore Sottsass and Perry King “Valentine” Portable Typewriter

One can’t help but notice a Sandro Botticelli-Filippino Lippi simbiosis between the two — both creatives are recognizable for an approach to design that resonates as a coming together of particles, impulses and electric currents.

“I think he [Sottsass] had a very paternal relationship toward me. Once I was with him in the elevator with a friend of his and he said that I would have been his cane in his old age. I didn’t like that, because I wanted to chart my own path,” Leclerc, who was also an intern of Gio Ponti in 1961, reminisces.

At work, Sottsass gave credit where credit was due and was open to ideas of the younger members of his team, Leclerc adds. Looking back on the Memphis launch party and cracking a smile, he recalls the invitation emblazoned with a photo shot by Sottsass of bare-chested Indigenous Polynesians walking on a deserted beach. On the night of the festivities, the first furniture models made by carpenter Renzo Brugola were strewn about Corso Europa in the open air. Obviously, Leclerc says, Sottsass’ designs were criticized by a lot of naysayers, who viewed them as being “outside the normal concept of good Italian design.”

Why the Post-Modern Design Memphis Movement Is Now Entering a New Era

Albert Leclerc (right) with Ettore Sottsass (center)

Why Memphis?

Memphis was named after a Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” which played during the group’s inaugural meeting. Leclerc says there probably wouldn’t have even been a Memphis if Sottsass hadn’t had his own Kerouac-ian experience in the U.S. that opened his mind. Regarded as a post-modern movement, Memphis embraced rad materials like plastic laminate or colored bulbs, and stripped away the ornate excess of the great European artistic and architectural epochs like the Classical and the Renaissance subtracting, in a sense, the Doric, the Ionic and the Corinthian from the column and just leaving the poles bare in an abstract frenzy.

Why the Post-Modern Design Memphis Movement Is Now Entering a New Era

Michele De Lucchi’s Oceanic for Memphis.

Radl says the Memphis movement was an instant hit and mobilized the zeitgeist of the period on a global scale. Indeed The New York Times referred to it in a 1999 article as the “Design Story of the Decade.” After the launch, Paris Match said “Interior Design will never return to what it was before Memphis.”

“It was an emotional liberation full of colors and decorations which was very new at this moment,” Radl points out.

But by the ’90s, he says, Memphis fell into “oblivion,” but by the early 2000s the movement made its way into academia and never left.

“Memphis was a very inspiring thing for young people to see. It showed it was possible to change the aesthetics of not just the shapes of furniture and objects, it was an opening igniting the creativity of young architects and designers,” Leclerc says.

Referring to its academic relevance, Dutch industrial designer Hella Jongerius once said Memphis was the “oxygen” in her studies. Iconic designer Karl Lagerfeld was among the earliest enthusiasts of the design movement, saying, “Memphis tried to breathe fresh air into the word design.”

In fact, Lagerfeld was so enthralled with Memphis that his Monaco apartment in the ’80s served as a showcase of the movement’s furniture, complete with a boxing-ring bed.

Indeed, on the fashion runways, Memphis has become a recurring theme. Miuccia Prada was instrumental in re-lighting the flame for Memphis when she used a vintage print from original Memphis founder Du Pasquier for her Miu Miu collection in 2006. The movement also made its way onto the Valentino runway for the fall ready-to-wear 2017 show. In 2021, Saint Laurent joined forces with Memphis for its Rive Droite release with Memphis microbial patterns transplanted onto sneakers and its check patterns onto sweatshirts. Hun Kim, design director of Karl Lagerfeld, resurrected the Memphis theme for his spring 2024 ready-to-wear collection, opening up the discussion for a younger generation.

Why the Post-Modern Design Memphis Movement Is Now Entering a New Era

Karl Lagerfeld spring 2024

In recent years, Sottsass — who died in 2007 — has often reappeared as the muse in a series of exhibits highlighting the impact of Memphis, breaking it down for a new generation of collectors. “Ettore Sottsass: The Magical Object” opened at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 2021 following a Triennale design museum show in Milan in 2020 and a run at the Met Breuer in New York in 2017. The iconic David Bowie was also an avid collector of Memphis pieces and was attracted to its irreverence, so much so that Sotheby’s featured his cherished Memphis pieces in the “Bowie/Collector” auction following the singer’s death in 2016.

On a commercial level, Memphis became a successful brand, affording the broader public an aperture into the cerebral world of high-end, conceptual design on a retail level. Sottsass’ industrial partner for Memphis, Ernesto Gismondi, controlled the Memphis company after Sottsass left, later selling it to Alberto Bianchi Albrici in 1994. With Sottsass as the point of reference for the group, and with his life partner Barbara Radice as cultural coordinator, the first collection of 55 pieces was presented in a gallery during Salone del Mobile in 1981. 

The brand was acquired by the Italian Radical Design group in 2022, which is helmed by 37-year-old Charley Vezza, who actually wasn’t even born when Memphis came to fruition but who is dedicated to promoting it to a digitally native generation. Vezza will showcase the brand’s “total living” potential at this year’s Salone del Mobile, its first showcase there since the acquisition. Italian Radical Design Group also owns envelope-pushing brands Gufram, another experimental label founded in the ’60s, and Meritalia, which was founded in 1987.

Why the Post-Modern Design Memphis Movement Is Now Entering a New Era

Charley Vezza, CEO of Italian Radical Design Group

Vezza, who started Piemonte-based Italian Radical Design Group with his mother Sandra, an avid art collector, says he’s not a custodian of the brand per se. “When things are so strong and important, they guard themselves. They cannot be tamed or controlled; they take on a life of their own. Memphis is not just a brand, a group, or objects, but rather the perception that people have, a spirit. What we can do is amplify it,” he says.

Among the 200 pieces in the Memphis catalogue, totemic designs by Sottsass — such as the Carlton shelf and Casablanca cabinet, the coffee tables by Michele De Lucchi named Kristall, and Flamingo — remain bestsellers. In terms of seating, George Snowden’s Palace and de Lucchi’s First chairs also rank highly, along with lighting by Martine Bedin’s Super, Tahiti by Sottsass and a floor lamp named Treetops by Sottsass and Oceanic, both by De Lucchi. Decorated ceramics by Du Pasquier like Carrot, Cauliflower, and Onion also top the list. 

Looking ahead, Vezza sees a great opportunity in bringing the Memphis legacy to a broader public and to the new generations, who are also growing up amid trying geopolitical times. “Even today, around the world, there are situations of constraint, not entirely dissimilar from those that prompted the birth of Memphis in the early 1980s,” he says.

Social media and new digital communication tools are a way to drive the storytelling “with the same disruptive force” of a movement that radicalized an entire industry, Vezza continues. 

“I believe there is still a desire for escape, joy and freshness among young people. After all, younger generations are still as sensitive as they were back then, and at this moment in history, there seems to be a great desire for change.”

Why the Post-Modern Design Memphis Movement Is Now Entering a New Era

The Carlton bookshelf designed by Ettore Sottsass for Memphis