One dark and stormy night* in 1980, a group of designers decided they'd had enough of the world's preoccupation with austerity, and the Memphis school was born. Mid-century modernism, with its clean lines and cool materials, had ruled the roost for years - Memphis responded with a riot of color and whimsy. The popularity of the Memphis movement in the 1980's was a clear signal that design enthusiasts were ready for a change, and the same might be said of Memphis's current resurgence.
The mid-century modern look has saturated the furniture market in recent years, from high end design showrooms on down. But now those of us who grew up in the era of black and white squiggles and turquoise and pink everything are holding the reigns of design outlets everywhere. And suddenly there are Instagram accounts dedicated to Memphis's founding father, Ettore Sottsass, museums are mounting retrospectives of his work, and major fashion labels are making their clothes in homage to the trend.
So are you a child of the Memphis era? Or are you discovering its irrepressible fun for the first time? Some people believe in spirit animals - in our line of work we're more in tune with spirit furniture. Read on to find out how to tell if Memphis is your design soulmate.
*It can safely be assumed that the night in question was dark, but its storminess is a matter of artistic license.
You're sneaky cosmopolitan.
Memphis is like a Frenchman in a football jersey: it sounds all-American, but it's as globally urbane as they come. The group of designers who came together to reject the modernist aesthetic were from all over the world, from Italy to Japan and Australia. The movement premiered at the 1981 Salone del Mobile of Milan, and its early adopters were internationally diverse. But as those of us who came of age in the United States in the 80's know, it didn't take long for Memphis to saturate the American market. MTV anyone?
You're Like A Rolling Stone.
So then how did the Memphis movement get such an American name? As design world legend has it, on the fateful night that those international designers went into Ettore Sottsass's apartment in Milan and came out as the Memphis school, they played Bob Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" on repeat (at over seven minutes, it didn't have to loop all that many times). Whether Bob Dylan and his harmonica really connect thematically to their resulting namesake furniture is a matter of opinion, but since there's no question that they both left their mark on their generation, perhaps it's unsurprising that they intersect somewhere.
You're more 80's than an after school special.
1980's pop culture wasted little time taking on Memphis design as its signature look. Some of the most recognizable hallmarks of the era were kitted out in Memphis's bold colors and aggressive geometry, from Esprit stores to the sets of big-budget Hollywood movies and tv shows. Memphis was the look of the moment, and it remains the visual shorthand to reference a decade characterized by hedonistic excess.
Practicality is NOT your middle name.
Mid-century modernism was fully the product of a post-WWII world. Designers were grappling with how to harness new methods and materials of mass production to make pieces that communicated their philosophy and aesthetic. There was an emphasis on integrating form and function, and on beautifying industrial design. There was A LOT of chrome and leather.
Memphis pieces, on the other hand, have a greedy footprint and a look-at-me manner. Bookshelves that stick out at an angle, making it virtually impossible for a book to rest on them? Why not?! A bed shaped like a boxing ring that you have to climb into over the ropes? Sounds perfect! Memphis took its mantra to reject the minimalism of modernism very seriously, but that's about the only thing it took seriously.
So now you know whether or not you have anything in common with the Memphis movement. And even if you find you're still more modernist than Memphis, it's hard not to enjoy the pure, candy-coated 80's nostalgia of a trip down Memphis memory lane.
Regardless of your personal results, we know what IS decidedly Memphis: these lots in our May Modern Art & Design Auction.