The Return of Postmodern Design & the Memphis Group

16 March, 2017

Bad taste is back, according to art historian and former education director at the Wassaic Project Hallie Scott (who, in our opinion, has exceptionally good taste). For the 17th installment of our Truth-tellers and Troublemakers Series, Hallie took a close look at key objects from postmodern design, including furniture by the Memphis Group, architecture inspired by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas, and New Wave typography, to see how graphic rule-breakers have helped define taste, and are taking it to the next level.

What is good taste?

For a lot of postmodern designers, good taste was rooted in modernism, which emerged in the first half of the 1900s, with Le Corbusier, who said that “a house is a machine for living in.” He emphasized functionalism over decoration or ornamentation. Houses pared down to essential architectural elements with modern building materials, like reinforced concrete. At the time, this was all quite radical, because houses in Paris were either brick or wood. Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus school embraced a factory aesthetic, this really pared-down, minimalist aesthetic. Then again, this embrace of modern materials, using cement and concrete and steel as building materials and showing them rather than trying to cover them up and hide them with maybe a stone façade as you would for a more traditional building.

That aesthetic applied to furniture and graphic design, too, didn’t it?

Look at Marcel Breuer's Club Chair, which was designed in 1925. Breuer loved to ride his bike, and was inspired by its tubular steel handles. He was interested in this modern material and how strong it was. He didn't want the chair to have any sort of upholstery to cover up the materials that he was using, so it's quite minimal. The Bauhaus is also known for its graphic design. Artists like Piet Mondrian or Theo van Doesberg were very interested in the grid, in a really pared-down color palette, mostly just primary colors and black and white and gray, sans-serif typefaces, and a little bit of asymmetry, usually just one or two asymmetrical elements. So, very balanced.

How did these ideas influence the larger world?

Modernist design principles were quickly picked up in corporate design, especially in the U.S., as ways to create really pronounced institutional identity. This was around the Mad Men era, when companies were figuring out that they needed to individualize themselves by creating institutional identity and branding. To show their wealth and modernity, corporations often used modernist designers for their buildings, revealing their materials with glass façades, steel frames, exposed I-beams.

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, 1926-31.
Walter Gropius, Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany, 1925–1926.

But this changed in the ’70s?

That’s when the Pruitt–Igoe project happened. It was a large urban housing project in St. Louis. Living conditions in Pruitt–Igoe began to decline soon after its completion in the ’50s, and by the late ’60s, the complex had become infamous for its poverty, crime, and racial segregation. Its 33 buildings were demolished with explosives in the mid-’70s, and it was an icon of failure in urban renewal and public-policy planning. This moment was really seen as a turning point, where a lot of the next-generation architects said we can't embrace these modernist design principles anymore, they're not working as solutions for our cities. A couple major critics were Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who became major figures in the postmodern architecture movement. In 1972 they, along with one of Venturi's TAs, Steven Izenour, published a book called Learning from Las Vegas. They took a trip to Vegas with some Yale students, to document and learn from the signage on the strip. They were really interested in how signage and symbolism had always been part of what architecture was.

Was that the breaking point between modernism and postmodernism?

Yeah. Some people would say it's ’68. The tumultuous events of ’68 really made the younger generation feel like they couldn't go back. But ’72 is also cited as a date, when people were really writing about these things rather than just talking about them.

Can you share a few examples of postmodern architecture?

In 1984, the AT&T building in New York (which is now the Sony building) was modeled after a Chippendale armoire. Architects like Michael Graves started pulling from a lot of different references, especially classical forms, like pyramids, or even giant swan and dolphin sculptures — really over-the-top decoration. These architects were really trying to break free from these modernist conventions, trying to use a much more wide range of references in their structures, and be much more expressive as well.

“Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary, for an architect.” — from Learning from Las Vegas, 1972

Walter Gropius, Internationale Architektur. Bauhausbücher 1, München 1925.
Piet Mondrian, Neue Gestaltung. Neoplastizismus. Bd. 5, Eschwege 1925.

So postmodernism was seen as an end to modernism?

Postmodernism was seen as the beginning of a new era. It was an end to the grand narratives that governed a lot of modernist thinking, like this sort of widespread faith in this notion of progress, of history as developing linearly toward a better and better state of being. A lot of modernist theorists were questioning these ideas and saying, "is this really progress?" Or, "what is progress?"

And what did progress look like in, say, typography?

New wave typography was a major graphic design movement during this time, with Weingart a main figure pushing this forward. It's also often called "Swiss punk" typography, because Weingart was based in Basel. A lot of these designers were using computers rather than just doing it on paper, so that allowed them to be a lot more playful. They had floppy disks for the first time, so they were much more easily able to transfer images from different sources. And there was a lot of experimentation with different fonts and with colors as well.

And this brings us to the Memphis Group...

The Memphis Group formed in Italy in 1981 and had a show that year that really garnered a wide variety of opinions. Jasper Morrison, who visited that show, said “You are in one sense repulsed by the objects, or I was, but also immediately freed by the sort of total rule-breaking.” So, this idea of completely freeing themselves from any of the rules of modernism, and really being open to experimentation.

Wet Magazine Issue 20 September/October 1979
Wet Magazine Issue 13 July/August 1978

How did a group of Italian designers get the name The Memphis Group?

They called themselves the Memphis Group because they really liked the American connotations of “Memphis,” and were actually listening to a Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” They said they liked “blues, Tennessee, rock’n’roll, American suburbs, and then Egypt, the Pharoahs’ capital, the holy city of the god, Ptah.” I think this quote really shows the diverse range of references they were interested in pulling in to their design work, and again breaking free of modernist orthodoxies by looking at all of these different reference points. Vegas was an inspiration for a lot of these people. They were really interested in, again, playing with color and incorporating playful design elements into their work. And using a lot of different materials, especially a plastic laminate, which was seen as a low material, not a material that was appropriate for fine or expensive furniture, but they're applying it in lots of ways to their furniture, then also playing with unorthodox shapes. They were very, very playful, almost like toys.

Who were some of the breakout best we should keep our eyes open for?

Nathalie Du Pasquier was a fabric designer and illustrator and artist who did a lot of work with the Memphis Group, and she's kind of had a renaissance and is now doing a lot of design work again. Ettore Sottsass, who was a key figure in the Memphis Group, was so interested in experimentation and lack of rules, that once Memphis design became pretty popular he wanted to keep going in his own direction. That sense of total experimentation and total freedom from rules really governed his practice.

This design was seen as rule-breaking and purposefully “tasteless,” but it had a lot of fans...

Karl Lagerfeld's apartment was completely done in Memphis Group design. This was around the time that he started at Chanel, and he had a boxing ring in his apartment. Dennis Zanzone is a major collector of Memphis design and his home really shows a full embrace of the Memphis aesthetic. He's cluttering it together, crowding it in.

“Modern architecture has been anything but permissive. Architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than to embrace what is there.” — from Learning from Las Vegas, 1972

Big Sur Sofa, 1986 by Peter Shire for Memphis Group
Flamingo side table, 1984 by Michele de Lucchi

Why do you think it’s having a resurgence now?

It's certainly about freedom of expression, and nostalgia. A lot of people are looking back at this, at their childhood, and thinking about things like Saved By the Bell and feeling this nostalgia for that type of design, and wanting to bring it back. It puts design history at our fingertips, and we can draw upon it. Appropriation is now part of design’s daily creative practice. It also feels like the only rule left to break: to bring back bad taste.

Words by The Editors and Hallie Scott.

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