The year is 1981. Raiders of the Lost Ark is showing at the cinema. Adam Ant, as the dandy highwayman, tops the charts singing Stand and Deliver. And, in interiors, an audacious raid on conventional good taste is underway. The Memphis Group, an international band of radical creatives, has come together, under architect Ettore Sottsass, to smash modernism. The movement launches at Salone del Mobile in Milan, and gives the world the futuristic Carlton room divider and the visual fireworks of Nathalie Du Pasquier’s Burundi and Mali textile patterns. Its mash-up of pop art and art deco, African pattern and plastic kitsch gains influential fans, including Karl Lagerfeld, who bought almost every one of Sottsass’s Memphis designs for his Monaco apartment. Then, by 1987, the moment is over. (“Every strong idea lasts a very short time,” said Sottsass.) In the same way the Ark of the Covenant is crated and stored in a secret government facility, the shockingly fresh, provocative New International Style is consigned to design history.
Three decades on, the crate marked Memphis has been rediscovered and prised open. Its familiar hyperpatterned pick ’n’ mix has re-emerged, as dynamic as ever, and a new wave of designers, such as Lorenzo Cereda, Camille Walala and Sanne Sofia, are creating contemporary spins on the 1980s themes. Today’s Memphis remake is not a rebellion against the design establishment, says Cereda. It reflects the current rejection of austere and bland luxury interiors, in favour of colour and character. “In the 1980s, Memphis was born with the purpose of breaking all the existing design rules and schemes. It was in opposition to the ordinary, was against modernism and its cold elegance. Now interior designers want to bring a smile into the space we live in. And Memphis style is often the right choice, with its furniture full of colours and vitality, but also comfortable, well‑designed and a pleasure for the eye.”
London-based Cereda was born and trained in Milan, and has worked on retail interiors for Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, Céline and Givenchy. He knows what makes a welcoming space. Last year, he launched a range of Memphis‑inspired limited-edition furniture, including a spectacular chest of drawers with an M-shaped profile, lacquered in yellow, pink and turquoise. A far cry from Sottsass’s challenging, laminated-wood constructions, Cereda’s collection (from £1,800) is exuberant and opulent. Handmade in Italy, it features white Carrara marble, polished stainless steel and a type of lacquer used on the bodywork of vintage cars.
Memphis’s 1980s line-up was largely composed of architect-designers, including Sottsass himself, Matteo Thun, Michele De Lucchi, Andrea Branzi and Alessandro Mendini. French artist Du Pasquier, the group’s youngest founding member, was an exception to this rule. Until 1986, when she took up painting full time, Du Pasquier designed “decorated surfaces”, patterned textiles, carpets and plastic laminates, and small items of furniture. While many of Memphis’s greatest hits – De Lucchi’s chequered Kristall side table, Branzi’s Gritti bookcase – now feel like period pieces, her designs have barely dated. Last year, a book of her sketches, Don’t Take These Drawings Seriously, 1981-87, was published, revealing her restlessly inventive decorative genius, with graphics that still leap off the page. Du Pasquier’s work defies description, even by the artist herself. Asked for a definition, she responds thoughtfully: “Maybe the essence of Memphis style was no style. All the participants had in some way agreed to get rid of the existing style. Memphis was the turning point between modernism and what came after; it opened the door to a new approach to design, but I don’t think there was a Memphis style. What I did was my style.” When the next generation of creatives rediscovered Memphis, this century, it was most often the idiosyncratic patterns of Du Pasquier that drew them in.
“She is my hero,” says Walala, a French designer and artist living in London. “I finished university in 2009 [textile design at Brighton], and found a book on Memphis in my final year that just made so much sense to me. I love the playfulness, the colour, in Du Pasquier’s work. It was such a source of inspiration.” Walala has been incorporating Memphis-style motifs into her work since 2012, when she revamped the nightclub XOYO in Shoreditch with her optically boggling “tribal pop” graphics. Demand for her wall art soon spread from the streets of the deeply hip design hub of east London, and her paintings now adorn locations in Paris, Melbourne and New York. At last year’s London Design Festival, Walala focused her attention on interiors, launching a limited-edition coffee table and shelving, plus ceramics, cushions and prints for design store Aria, as part of a collection called Walala in da House. And this September, at DesignJunction, she will unveil a new rug, Congo (£625 per sq m), a hand-knotted wool design for Floor Story, featuring trademark Memphis motifs of blue and purple geometrics, black and white stripes and bacteria-under-a-microscope black wiggles on a red background. (The latter being one of the more perplexing tropes of New International Style – quite unaccountable, in fact, until one discovers that Du Pasquier’s father was a virologist.)
To most trendwatchers, Walala appeared to be in the vanguard of Memphis’s rediscovery, back in 2012. After her transformation of XOYO, there followed several key revival collections, including the So Sottsass range of ceramics, fabrics and stationery launched in 2013 by Darkroom, and an American Apparel collaboration involving Du Pasquier prints. But, behind the scenes, one of Milan’s most directional furniture firms had begun hatching a plan with Sottsass himself to bring Memphis back into interiors as long ago as 2004.
The dazzling Kartell Goes Sottsass. A Tribute To Memphis collection (from £178), which has this year been lighting up Kartell’s store windows across Europe, from Cologne to Paris, Stockholm to London, was conceived over a decade ago. Kartell president Claudio Luti says: “The essence of this project comes down to a meeting between Kartell and Sottsass, that I would call epic.” Their discussion was a rip-roaring success, partly because it was Sottsass’s opinion that a designer’s business was “not to make collectors’ items but furniture to be sold in stores, taken home and used every day”, and Luti was offering him exactly that opportunity. However, there was a hitch – an 11-year hitch – when Sottsass presented drawings of the sleek, complicated, curvy solids he had in mind. “When Sottsass designed these items for Kartell, in 2004, no suitable technologies existed to produce them on an industrial scale,” Luti explains. Over a decade later, advances in thermoplastic technopolymer manufacture mean it is possible to commercially produce the streamlined shapes to a quality that would have been previously unattainable, and Luti unveiled the first collection – including two stools, Colonna (£210) and Pilastro (£210), and a vase, Calice (£178) – at Salone del Mobile 2015.
Technology has played a key role in the resurgence of Memphis style, not just in belatedly allowing production of Sottsass’s fanciful forms, but as a tool to facilitate creativity. Walala starts her process with a sketchbook, drawing and painting freehand, but, in common with her design generation, she also uses a digital camera and a computer. “Working on computer is quite playful – you can create pattern, move shapes around, change the colour and there’s not so much pressure. You don’t have to start again if you make mistakes.”
Gillian Fuller, born in North Yorkshire and based in South Africa, and best known for her African beadwork, also creates patterns on computer. A former student of pop artist Richard Hamilton, she has developed a highly unusual mode of design using Excel spreadsheets, which she refers to as “my paintbrush”. This year, she released a range of Memphis-inspired wallpapers (from £195 per 10m roll) hopping with vivid hues, stripes, geometrics and some oddly pixellated motifs, reminiscent of an 1980s arcade game, through Robin Sprong, a specialist in digitally printed bespoke surface design.
Tom Puukko, who founded wallpaper brand Feathr last year, says: “Digital technology in all its forms is a huge part of the Memphis revival. It allows artists to experiment more and enables small production runs of more challenging work that wouldn’t have been possible a few years back.” Feathr’s collection of Memphis-inspired wallpapers includes Paradise (£119 per 10m roll) by Peter Judson, Super Abstract (£119 per 10m roll) by Supermundane, and Memphis Bound #2 (£89 per 10m roll) by Dutch designer Sanne Sofia, a cheerful pattern of coloured squiggles in perpetual motion. Sofia, who graduated from Design Academy Eindhoven seven years ago, is typical of the younger Memphisites in that she is inspired by the patterns and hues of the original movement, but doesn’t feel any of the revolutionary zeal of its 1980s exponents. “I have always been a fan of using colour and playful shapes in my designs,” she says, “so for me, Memphis was always just around the corner. We have seen enough of the very minimalistic and very serious-looking designs. People like to be happy and to be surrounded by happy designs in their daily life.”
In the 1980s, on the contrary, an encounter with the New International Style was not supposed to be blissful. British designer Sebastian Wrong says what he recalls about Memphis, first time round, was that he didn’t like it much. “What I do remember about the movement was how ugly and dislocated the aesthetics were.” And that was the point, partly. The purpose of Memphis was not to please but to shock the aesthetically complacent. As Deyan Sudjic writes in his excellent book, Ettore Sottsass and the Poetry of Things: “Sottsass… deliberately set out to put a bomb under what he called ‘the uniform panorama of good taste’.” Wrong, now a Memphis convert, says: “You only need to look at Malpensa Airport in Milan [designed by Sottsass in 2000] to appreciate how well it works on a large scale, but I think Memphis was a very future-facing independent design movement. It’s one of those strange movements that takes some time to like but, once you know about it, you really appreciate it.” His change of heart led to one of the loveliest revival collections of all. In 2013, Wrong launched a sister brand to Danish label Hay, Wrong for Hay. It released collections with Du Pasquier, including one featuring designs from her archive, printed and embroidered on cushions (from £35), and one using new patterns on a trio of towels (from £15), named He, She and It, and now available through Hay.
The Memphis revival is not about nostalgia. Though the names Sottsass and Du Pasquier still loom large when young designers talk about their influences, this is a reinvention of the style for the 21st century, rather than an homage. This year, at the fair where the movement was born, Salone del Mobile, there was a host of Memphis-inspired designs shown by studios including Equilibri Furniture and Chapel Petrassi, in the Ventura Lambrate district – the showcase for emerging talent. To this new generation of well-travelled artists and designers used to the visual cacophony of the internet, the creative kaleidoscope of Memphis patterns is restful on the eye, and the global pick ’n’ mix of New International Style is a new type of harmonious. Perhaps, this time round, Memphis is destined to become utterly conventional, contemporary good taste. What would Sottsass make of that?