Sunday, August 28, 2022


[See above for my video, which uses the below script.]

Coming up, I tell you what this is, what this is, and what this is, and explain why the answers don’t really matter.

[Opening titles: 359. Walking in Memphis Furniture, or “Do I Really Feel the Way I Feel?”]

Hello there. “Memphis” is the name of a group of international designers that ran from 1980 to 1988, led by Italian architect and Olivetti typewriter designer Ettore Sottsass. The group existed to question the functional nature of modern design. I am not here to explain and analyse the history and philosophy of this group, or to analyse their work in detail. I only want to share with you how wonderfully overwhelming it all is.

In June 2021, I took a trip to the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes to view “Memphis: Plastic Field”, a touring exhibition that gathered over a hundred and sixty examples of furniture, textiles and glassware from across the group’s timeline. I am grateful to the gallery for letting me take pictures, letting me walk through the exhibition twice, and dressing the galleries in high-contrast black and white, like the exhibits needed help to be seen. To be clear, these are not intended to be works of art, even though they are: they are tables, chairs, bookshelves, lights and glasses, and were made to be used as such. It just so happened that the colours and designs that permeated the rest of the 1980s also came from everything you see.

The first time I saw an item of Memphis furniture was in Minnie Mouse’s first TV special, “Disney’s Totally Minnie”, from 1988, where one of their chairs is shown in a suitably multi-coloured room. The curved shape of the chair had been burned into my mind since I was five or six years old, and there it was, just sitting there in front of me. Called the “Bel Air” to fit a scheme of using international hotels for names, it had presence, it had status – it was a postmodern throne.

Even before the “Bel Air”, colours and patterns like those used by Memphis had been splashed through the opening titles of the Channel 4 music show “The Tube” from 1984. I saw this on Friday evenings when I was about two years old, as the word and numbers game “Countdown” was on from Monday to Thursday, and I guess that what impressionable small children need is colours and movement, so I got the best there was. I kept asking my mother to draw the “Tube” logo until she asked me to do it, which I apparently did first time. What I don’t get is why I kept asking for the “Tube” logo to be drawn, when this [Channel 4 ident] was the logo for the channel it played on – some things we’ll never know.

In a moment, I will go further into why Memphis design continues to matter today, and provide the answers to the opening quiz, following this short break. [Advertisements for Weetabix, Warninks advocaat and Kitekat cat food.]

Welcome back, and it’s time to confirm what those Memphis items were from the beginning of the video: the first item was a teapot, the second was not a plate but an ashtray, and the bird-looking sculpture was a lamp... and yet, the fact these items had any sort of intended use really isn’t the point. 

As I mentioned earlier, the Memphis group questioned the functional nature of design, and that included the nature of an item existing only for its intended use, and any need to be practical for that use – once liberated from those needs, a designer can begin to play. Take, for example, the Tawaraya bed, or sofa, or Japanese tatami mat, or boxing ring, depending on what you needed in that moment.

My family’s living room and kitchen in the 1980s was defined by wood, by pine, and by a child’s teeth marks in pine, but the construction of Memphis furniture was new, and prescient, using the brand new medium density fibreboard – MDF – and it was possible to laminate it with coloured or patterned surfaces - anything other than simulated woodgrain. 

There is little difference between the materials of Memphis furniture and Ikea furniture, other than Memphis being hand-built from the start, and using more ostentatious names like Plaza, Carlton and Bel Air, instead of Billy and Malm. I should make that clear: these Memphis items are not one-off custom builds, but they were available to order out of a catalogue, despite being very expensive. Likewise, intricate glassware items could easily be created by colouring and gluing separate pieces of glass together.

But if this is where furniture could have been headed, why did Ikea, Habitat and Argos continue with woodgrain and white laminate, and why do we persist with magnolia and grey paint? It is one thing for a room to make you feel cosy, but what if you want to feel elated, overwhelmed, challenged? Is furniture meant to do that? Am I supposed to not be hypnotised by my curtains? Can I admire my bedside table? It is all well and good taking the colours and patterns from Memphis and swathe your entire popular culture in it, but in doing so, it removed it from the context in which those colours and patterns originally appeared – it dazzled the public, but they didn’t want to sit on it. It has made Memphis into a moment in history, a period piece, a museum exhibit. That doesn’t feel good enough somehow. 

It has taken me over a year to work out how to present these pictures, because I didn’t want to present another history of something that people don’t do anymore, carefully listing the names and years for future reference, and manoeuvring it into a discussion on the defined historical period of postmodernist design and blah blah blah – other people can do that this time. I remember leaving the MK Gallery feeling like I had been set on fire, like I am never going to witness anything that eye-opening for a long time, and it was all over looking at furniture. That is the important thing for me. Memphis is a hauntology, a vision of a lost future. This is what you could have won. Some things are worth losing your mind over.

Thank you for watching, if you would like to see more videos like this, please like, comment and subscribe, and as ever the nostalgia culture crisis continues at, the home of dancing with the gatekeepers.

No comments:

Post a Comment