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Memphis, Ornament and Plastic Laminates

Figure: Invitation to the first Memphis exhibition, September 1981 Milan. Designed by Luciano Paccagnella after a postcard from Los Angeles Museum of Natural History

The Memphis design collective was founded in Milan by Ettore Sottsass in 1980 along with designers Michele de Lucchi, Matteo Thun, Javier Mariscal, Marco Zanini, Aldo Cibic, Andrea Branzi, Barbara Radice, Martine Bedin, George J. Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier. Memphis was named for Bob Dylan’s song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. Memphis disbanded in 1988.

When I was studying design as an undergraduate, I was always irritated by Memphis; it was the awkward ugly chapter in the history of industrial design at the onset of post-modernism. It was the moment when, to a student trained in a specific modernist history, everything was overcome with bad taste and poor judgment. It was a problem; something that developed out of a history of modernist and functionalist design, but turned that history on its head. In Memphis, the ethics of functionalism are completely denied—material is used dishonestly, structure is concealed, function follows form and humor and poor taste win out over the gravitas commonly associated with modern design. In the 1986 dark comedy, Ruthless People, Danny DeVito plays unethical fashion mogul Sam Stone who lives unhappily with his wife Barbara (played by Bette Midler) in an apartment that looks like a showroom of early post-modern design. The Stones represent the nouveau riche eighties and the furniture is the appropriate mise-en-scène. The furniture is the symbol of their poor taste and lack of sophistication; icons of post-modern Los Angeles—including Jonathan Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel and Eddie Blake’s Tail o’ the Pup hotdog stand—provide the backdrop. Ruthless People is not the only connection between Memphis and Los Angeles—the invitation to the first Memphis show in Milan in 1981borrowed a cartoon dinosaur from the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. Last year, a quarter century after the first show in Milan, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) held the first retrospective of Ettore Sottsass’ work in the United States (organized by LACMA Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts, Ronald T. Labaco). The survey included a wide range of furniture and ceramics from Sottsass’ early career through to his work with Memphis.

Figure: Ettore Sottsass, Plastic laminate furniture prototypes 1966

Now, looking at that work as a sculptor with a certain investment in a history of design, it seems like an answer, not a problem. An answer to how furniture and sculpture can come together. The pieces that captured my attention first actually preceded Memphis by nearly 25 years—Ettore Sottsass’ plastic laminate furniture prototypes from the late sixties. These prototypes evolved into the Superbox wardrobes produced by Poltronova in 1968. They are big monolithic cabinets that appear functionless at first—like oversized garishly decorated plinths or minimalist sculpture gone awry. They are in fact cabinets with concealed hinges. Sottsass photographed the cabinets with a variety of props—foam watermelons, hi-fi stereo equipment and a naked young woman. The photographs give no indication of what function the Superbox might serve, nor even how they might be deployed in a domestic environment. The photograph does not attempt to locate the furniture with in a lifestyle in any conventional sense, but rather proposes something more complicated.

The bright striped plastic laminates of the Superbox cabinets were the precursors to the plastic laminate stock patterns—designed by Michele de Lucchi, Cristoph Radl and Ettore Sottsass and Nathalie du Pasquier between 1981and1983. The laminates were integrated to a wide range of furniture and objects and became the signature of what Sottsass described as Memphis’ “new international style.” Names like Terrific and Traumatic and Medicinal.

Figure: left to right: Serpente by Ettore Sottsass, Micidial by Michele de Lucchi, Isole by Cristoph Radl, Terrific and Traumatic by Michele de Lucchi, Lamiera and Rete 2 by Sottsass

The result of this “New International Style,” is a kind of object that forces a new read and undermines a straightforward interpretation—a marked departure from the articulated efficiency and engineering of functionalist design. It asks something more of its viewer than furniture should. This is what post-modern architecture tried to do, but it could never really work because a building is always a building first; you cannot make an abstract architecture, buildings are just too literal. But an object can float somewhere between sculpture and furniture—between use-value and art-value. It is hard to read a Superbox as furniture because its function is not immediately obvious—the balance of form and function that is the aesthetic grammar of modernist design is totally upended. Use-value is concealed beneath a veneer of patterns and colors. When you consider furniture that exists within a modernist history, but in opposition to functionalism, you move into a grey area where sculpture and furniture can co-exist, where the dialectic collapses. This sort of decoration, at least according to that specific history, is the antithesis of function and the decorative impulse is the antithesis of modernism. It is hard not to read Sottsass’ celebration of decoration as a rebuttal to Adolf Loos and everyone who followed in his footsteps. In Ornament and Crime, Loos famously declared that, “the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use.”

In the first Memphis book, Memphis: Research, Experiences, Results, Failures and Successes of New Design, Sottsass puts forward the following statement on decoration.

Decoration as we imagine it involves disregard of the support structure as the basic structure of the design. People have always ‘believed’ in the basic structure; they have always believed that structure ‘had’ to exist; they have always believed in the design as a succession of moments and in the inalienability of mental structures, as earnestly as they have believed in the principle of causality. We tend to imagine the design as a series of accidents that come together by chance; we imagine a possible sum, not an inevitable story. And what we believe holds this story of accidents together and gives it meaning, is that every accident has a formal decorative identity. A Memphis table is decoration. Structure and decoration are one thing.

-Ettorre Sottsass (1984)
As much as Sottsass’ use of ornament appears to break rank with overarching functionalist conventions, it bears a specific connection to idiosyncratic Italian modernist, Gio Ponti. The decorated furniture Ponti produced in collaboration with designer Piero Fornasetti in Milan in the 1950’s was another example of an unconditional embrace of ornament. In an essay on Fornsetti, Sottsass likens the exploding imagery in his patterns to the final scenes of Antonioni’s Zabriske Point – “He applied his thousand stickers, his discoveries, his choices and his pieces of metaphors with incorruptible determination on everything that exists (and whose logic does not even minimally touch him).” In Ponti and Fornasetti’s collaboration the tension between the form and the treatment of its lacquered surface is apparent.

Figure: Desk, Gio Ponti with Piero Fornasetti

The patterned plastic laminates used to make Memphis furniture on the other hand are both decoration and material. The laminate carries a pattern in the same way that travertine or mahogany might—a pattern within the material, not on its surface. This is an important distinction. Bearing in mind Loos’ feelings about ornament, it is interesting to consider his design for a House for Josephine Baker in relationship to some of the Superbox furniture. The design only existed as a single model and a partial set of plans, the house was never built and it is unclear whether Loos and Baker ever met? What is clear from the only set of plans—Loos was notorious for his limited archive—is that the house had a café on the ground floor and a pool on third floor with windows that allowed visitors on the second floor to see the inside of the pool. The rather monolithic upper stories of the house were wrapped in dramatic bands of black and white marble while the first story had a monochromatic white finish. The marble cladding has not been decorated or embellished, but the broad black and white bands running across the façade are clearly ornamental.

Figure: Adolf Loos, model of House for Josephine Baker, 1928 (unbuilt), courtesy of the Loos Archive, Albertina, Vienna. Ettore Sottsass