Ettore Sottsass & the Memphis Group

James Brough – 3172532

Ettore Sottsass Photographed by Mario Ermoli for Limn-Magazine
Ettore Sottsass Photographed by Mario Ermoli for Limn-Magazine Image from www.marioermoli.com/portfolio/sottsass/.

Born 1917 Innsbruck, Austria, Ettore Sottsass got his degree in architecture at twenty two. In 1946 he was working in Milan, mainly as a designer of private environments and interiors, as well as furniture and other objects (Sottsass). He described his work as allowing him to explore his interest with “the existence and survival in artificial earth spaces” and that others acknowledged him as being the first designer to break away from “functionalism” with a focus on how colour and materials could work in contrast to “rigidity of structure” as symbols for life and vitality (Sottsass). It was in 1981 that Ettore would found the Memphis Group, a collection of designers that would radically change design in Italy and all over the world (“Ettore…”).

"Carlton" Room Divider by Ettore Sottsass, Wood & Plastic Laminate 1981. Image from https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/objects?exhibitionId=d1debf05-fe5b-4d90-8674-fc60b5dca3c9&pkgids=441#!?perPage=20&offset=160
“Carlton” Room Divider by Ettore Sottsass, Wood & Plastic Laminate 1981. Image from https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/objects?exhibitionId=d1debf05-fe5b-4d90-8674-fc60b5dca3c9&pkgids=441#!

The groups work encompassed the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk. Like the Bauhaus, the group had a wide variety of creations from textiles to lamps, chairs, and even the odd drawing. Seemingly every aspect of the living environment was considered and redesigned by the many members.

"Gabon" Textile Design by Nathalie Du Pasquier in Cotton fabric 1982
“Gabon” Textile Design by Nathalie Du Pasquier in Cotton fabric 1982
"Ashoka" Lamp Design by Ettore Sottsass, lacquered metal 1981. Image from https://www.memphis-milano.com/products/ashoka?_pos=1&_sid=f9ff5140c&_ss=r
“Ashoka” Lamp Design by Ettore Sottsass, lacquered metal 1981. Image from https://www.memphis-milano.com/products/ashoka
"First" Chair design by Michele De Lucchi, enameled wood and metal 1981. Image from https://www.memphis-milano.com/collections/michele-de-lucchi-1/products/first
“First” Chair design by Michele De Lucchi, enameled wood and metal 1981. Image from https://www.memphis-milano.com/collections/michele-de-lucchi-1/products/first

Here is a collection of many Memphis Group pieces altogether in a live setting.

"Memphis Collection Room View" Photograph and Collection from Dennis Zanone. Image from http://www.memphis-milano.org/
“Memphis Collection Room View” Photograph and Collection from Dennis Zanone. Image from http://www.memphis-milano.org/

In 1985 Sottsass felt he had fully explored this aspect of his designs, and not wanting to be tied down to one movement left the group. Two years later the group officially separated (Schwartzberg). The groups work had a significant impact on design in the years following its formation, influencing design styles that are immediately recognisable today. Television shows like Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Saved by the Bell feature sets influenced by the Memphis Group (Schwartzberg). These styles become iconic to the 80’s and 90’s.

Set from Pee-wee's Playhouse. Photo from https://www.thecut.com/2017/05/the-memphis-design-movement-is-having-a-moment.html
Set from Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Photo from https://www.thecut.com/2017/05/the-memphis-design-movement-is-having-a-moment.html
Set from Saved by the Bell. Photo from https://www.thecut.com/2017/05/the-memphis-design-movement-is-having-a-moment.html
Set from Saved by the Bell. Photo from https://www.thecut.com/2017/05/the-memphis-design-movement-is-having-a-moment.html

The groups style is still alive today seen in current designs by some of the original members like Alessandro Mendini who created skateboards for Supreme (Carson) . A collaboration between BMW, Garage Italia Customs and Michele De Lucchi, who’s 1981 chair design was shown above, re-imagine the companies i3 and i8 with Memphis style interior and exterior (Boeriu).

Memphis inspired Skateboards by Alessandro Mendini and Supreme. Image from https://www.creativebloq.com/inspiration/10-iconic-examples-of-memphis-design
Memphis inspired Skateboards by Alessandro Mendini and Supreme. Image from https://www.creativebloq.com/inspiration/10-iconic-examples-of-memphis-design
Memphis inspired BMW i8 exterior. Image from https://www.bmwblog.com/2017/09/13/2017-frankfurt-auto-show-bmw-i8-memphis-style/
Memphis inspired BMW i8 exterior. Image from https://www.bmwblog.com/2017/09/13/2017-frankfurt-auto-show-bmw-i8-memphis-style/
Memphis inspired BMW i8 interior. Image from https://www.bmwblog.com/2017/09/13/2017-frankfurt-auto-show-bmw-i8-memphis-style/
Memphis inspired BMW i8 interior. Image from https://www.bmwblog.com/2017/09/13/2017-frankfurt-auto-show-bmw-i8-memphis-style/

Ettore Sotsass and the Memphis Group were a collection of creators that shook that design world when they were formed in the 1980’s and have had lasting impacts on designers and pop-culture from then and still today. We explored designers and movements from around the world in class not were not mentioned in the current version of our textbook. The Memphis group and its designers would be an excellent addition to them in an updated version of the book, allowing us to explore design right up until the brink of the 21st century.


Works Cited

Boeriu, Horatiu. “2017 Frankfurt Auto Show: BMW i8 Memphis Style Edition.” BMW BLOG, 13 Sept. 2017, www.bmwblog.com/2017/09/13/2017-frankfurt-auto-show-bmw-i8-memphis-style/.

Carson, Nick. “10 Iconic Examples of Memphis Design.” Creative Bloq, Creative Bloq, 19 Jan. 2018, www.creativebloq.com/inspiration/10-iconic-examples-of-memphis-design.

“Ettore Sottsass.” Memphis Milano, www.memphis-milano.com/collections/ettore-sottsass.

Schwartzberg, Lauren. “The Memphis Design Movement Is Having a Moment.” The Cut, 29 May 2017, www.thecut.com/2017/05/the-memphis-design-movement-is-having-a-moment.html.

Sottsass, Ettore. “Sottsass Biographies A & B.” Design Quarterly, no. 89, 1973, pp. 34–34. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4090789. Accessed 31 Mar. 2020.


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