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Memphis design is having a moment—again

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Here's why, and a brief history lesson

Photo via <a href="">Memphis Milano</a>
Photo via Memphis Milano

Briefly forgotten, but by no means gone, Memphis—the 1980s phenomenon that shook the design world to its foundations—is creeping back into the mainstream. At this year's Salone del Mobile, signs of its re-emergence were widespread. Original Memphis, which peaked from 1981 to 1987, illustrates the hallmarks of postmodern '80s design: strong geometric motifs, mixed materials often including laminate, clashing and saturated colors, and a repudiation of anything streamlined and tasteful—a veritable "shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price."

From young designers issuing riffs on Memphis furniture to the reissued 1980s classics themselves, here's what we saw in Milan (also known as the city that gave birth to the movement).

Images courtesy of Kartell.

The most attention-grabbing launch came from Kartell. The leading Italian plastics manufacturer made a splash by introducing three designs from ringleader Ettore Sottsass that the Maestro of Memphis had originally created for the company in 2002. The three pieces were never put into production because today's sophisticated manufacturing techniques weren't then available. Kartell presented another six designs at its flagship store in Milan's Brera district, staging a salute to both Sottsass and Memphis as a whole (Philippe Starck's Mademoiselle chairs were dressed in Nathalie du Pasquier-designed fabrics) and company CEO Claudio Luti says that he plans to manufacture all nine eventually.

Panda cabinet by Paola Navone for Cappellini. Images courtesy of Cappellini.

Paola Navone, now a leading figure in the contemporary design world and one of the group's original members, rediscovered her Memphis roots when she recently moved and uncovered two of her original 1980s pieces. She put them to use in her home, and when long-time collaborator and friend Giulio Cappellini came to visit he was immediately inspired. "I'm tired of all this brown, beige, and gray," Cappellini says. "It was time to do something new." At the 2015 Salone del Mobile fair, Cappellini introduced a series designed by Navone that had tables and bases covered in original Memphis laminate with boldly colored sofas to accompany them.

A photo posted by BCXSY (@bcxsy) on

Rossana Orlandi, the influential Milanese shopowner and tastemaker whose store is now a required stop for all design lovers, is producing a line of outdoor furniture in collaboration with Sunbrella that is full of Memphis's asymmetry, wit, and bold clashing colors. The designs by BCXSY, while not exact copies, operate under the Memphis design vocabulary.

Masanori Umeda's "Tawaraya" Party Ring from 1981, as seen in Karl Lagerfeld's Monte Carlo apartment. Photo via Mondo Blogo.

Indeed, rather than the reappearance of Memphis itself, the philosophy of Memphis seems to have infused the current crop of up-and-coming designers. The look and feel was spotted in a host of products around the fair and in Milan proper, including a lighting fixture that Marcel Wanders designed for Barovier & Toso, the venerable Venetian glass company founded in 1295. "I couldn't do what I do today without Memphis," he declares.

The original group, headed by Ettore Sottsass with colleagues like Michele de Lucchi, Andrea Branzi, and Nathalie du Pasquier, as well as international names like Michael Graves, Peter Shire, and Shiro Kuramata, thumbed their collective noses at the tried-and-true geometric rigor of the staid International School and ruled the design news for seven years with brightly colored and patterned laminates and technicolor-hued furniture. Sottsass's departure from the collective in 1987 coincided, coincidentally, with a major stock market crash. After that, new Memphis designs never appeared. To keep the company alive, the four businessmen who had backed the rebels took a completely new tack and produced the work of fine artists including Mimmo Paladino, Sandro Chia, and Alighiero Boetti in 1991 and 1992, calling it Meta Memphis. But by this time, interest in over-the-top decor had almost completely disappeared.

Clockwise from top left: Celery tray by Michele de Lucchi, drawing by George Sowden, Big Sur sofa by Peter Shire, and Tahiti lamp by Ettore Sottsass. Photos via Memphis-Milano

Dr. Alberto Bianchi Albrici, who had been with the company since 1986, purchased it from the original owners in 1996 and set out on his own. He has always actively promoted and sold these wares. "I have to feed my family," he declares, and to be clear, the pieces have always been commercially available. If someone wanted a Carlton bookcase—a Sottsass design that has become a symbol of the movement—Albrici would simply have one made (though usually five at a time because just one would have been too expensive to make). Today, the bookshelf-slash-room divider sells for around $15,000.

The iconic Carlton bookcase designed by Ettore Sottsass. Photo viaWild Birds Collective.

But while the design stance of Memphis was a philosophical success, it was never a commercial one. American designers who tried to jump on the bandwagon met with failure. George Nelson's Memphis-inspired clock and Milo Baughman's ode-to-Memphis sofa quickly disappeared. Dayton's department store in Minneapolis launched a major Memphis promotion storewide, which crashed and burned. "Memphis was our wrongest wrong," said Joel Kaplan, then the store's design director. But this mass rejection doesn't seem to worry anyone today. Declares Luti: "I don't do things that don't make money."