Tuesday, November 30, 2010

MODULE TEN - The Memphis School

Ettore Sottsass Valentine Portable Typewriter,
1969 Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.
Ettore Sottsass, (Artist), Enorme Telephone,
1986, Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.)

The images above are pieces designed by Ettore Sottsass, an iconic leader of the Memphis design movement.  Meikle, in his book, Design in the USA Oxford History of Art, Oxford, (p. 195) explains that Memphis was born out of America's propensity to accept Post-modern European influences. As well, this movement derived from European designers', specifically Eric Stottsass, love of popular American cheap materials such as fake marble and wood-grained veneer, "gratuitous" use of chrome, and "gaudy" colors.  Meikle goes on to state that the name "Memphis" brings to mind American cultural representations such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, blues, suburbia, and rock and roll.

In the images above, we see implements, designed by Stottsass, that could be found in an American suburban home at the time this design movement arose in the 1980's. The use of bright colors, red and yellow, typify the design movement.

What were some key elements in the first Memphis design Show?

The first Memphis show was put on by Stottsass and his collaborators in Milan Italy was in 1981. In this show, furniture and accessories were exhibited with the following attributes:
  • plastic laminates
  • bright colors
  • zig zag lines and squiggles
  • abandonment of purity and promotion of excess
According to Meikle, at the show, "Metal supports for tables, shelves, and lamps seemed to quiver or wiggle as if to suggest utter lack of support"

The black and white image below is a great example of the Scotsass'use of zig zags even before the Memphis show in Milan. It displays his disposition toward geometry and movement.

Ettore Sottsass, Study for Fruit Bowl (with Apple), 1973,
Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y

What was the design motivation of the Memphis School?

Barbara Radice, the groups publicist succinctly stated that the design philosophy "abandoned the myths of progress and of a program of cultural regeneration capable of changing the world to a rational design. " Alternatively, the Memphis design focused on "breaking ground, extending the field of action, broadening awareness, shaking things up, discussing conditions, and setting up fresh opportunities.  She further went on to state that the groups use of popular American materials set up a new way of communicating. (Meikeil p. 196)

Meikle, p. 196
The image above is piece displayed in the show. The hand work involved in producing this piece made it expensive to purchase. Here we see the bright colors, sharp edges, and bold statement typical of the Memphis school.

How has the Memphis design influence today's Graphic design works?

Below is a poster created by William Longhauser, reflecting the design elements of post modern architect, Michael Graves.  The elements of the poster design include Memphis-type sharp edges and color contrastI discovered a poster displayed at the Herbst Theater on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco this week which appeared to have post modern elements displayed in the design. When comparing the Longhause poster with the poster found at the Herbst theater I saw what appeared to be common post modern design elements: zig zags, relative boldness of statement,  contrasting colors, and overlapping.

William Longhauser, 1983

Poster at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, November 2010


Meggs, Philip B and Alston W. Purvis (2006). Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Meikle, Jeffrey L. (2005). Design in the USA Oxford History of Art, Oxford, New York Oxford University Press


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