Memphis Milano - the postmodern forerunner

February 4, 2024

Memphis Milano - the postmodern forerunner

Explore the transformative journey of Ettore Sottsass's Memphis movement, a fusion of creativity and rebellion against traditional design norms that reshaped the global design landscape with its postmodern revolution.

Shortly after turning 60, Italian architect Ettore Sottsass (1917–2007) established the design studio Sottsass Associati, which later became the platform for the anti-design movement Memphis. At a workshop in December 1980, a group of architects and designers shaped their thoughts and ideas for a new design era, coming up with furniture, lamps, and accessories for the gallery Arc ‘74 in Milan. Creativity flowed, and everyone was very enthusiastic about the ground-breaking ideas that were born. Ettore Sottsass himself was overwhelmed and exclaimed, “This is a collection. Let’s make it!” Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” was played again and again at the workshop. Accordingly, the collection was named Memphis, the reference being both to American popular culture and to Ancient Egypt.

In September 1981, Memphis Milano showcased its first collection parallel to the Milan furniture fair. The international response was enormous. People queued around the block to see the exhibition, and design magazines spread images worldwide. In that way, Memphis came to inspire and influence a new generation of designers. No one was unaffected by what they saw –emotionally reacting with either love or resistance. In one sense, the world’s design map was redrawn... 

Between 1981 and 1988, Memphis launched more than 300 products across just over 60 designers. Some objects were produced in limited editions, very attractive in auctions today, while others are still manufactured for sale on the interior market.

Nordic Memphis

The postmodernist style was quick to impact the Nordic countries. Many young architects and designers were deeply inspired. One of the foremost Swedish interpreter of the style is interior architect and designer Olle Anderson (b.1939), who created an extensive number of products in the Memphis spirit over the decade. His most famous collection is the limited-edition cabinets for Swedish furniture manufacturer Horreds, along with his unique, expressive light fittings for Boréns. For a long time, Anderson worked as a leading interior designer at White Architects and, in 1989, founded the subsidiary White Design. As a former professor at HDK-Gothenburg’s College of Design and Crafts, he trained a new future generation of Swedish architects and designers.

Postmodern Modernism

Finnish design guru Yrjö Kukkapuro (b.1933) has worked as a designer since the 1950s. Many are familiar with his characteristic plastic furniture for the Finnish company Haimi from the 1960s. Or his many ergonomic and strictly modernist chairs for Avarte ten years later.

But during the postmodern decade of the 1980s, Kukkapuro experimented with different expressions by giving some of his earlier modernist furniture congenial additions. A new cut or an intricately designed armrest provided a new context. In keeping with Nordic design traditions, not compromising on comfort, Kukkapuro’s rejuvenated chairs retain their elaborate functionality.

Designer of the month
Arne Jacobsen

Arne Jacobsen is one of the most known Scandinavian architects and furniture designers of the 20th century with pieces such as the Ant, the Swan and the Egg, as well as buildings such as the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen and the Saint Catherine’s College in Oxford.

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