Turning their noses up to ‘good taste’, mashing up art deco, kitsch and pop art, the Memphis Group had a radical attitude and an undeniable impact on design internationally when it emerged more than 30 years ago.
This avant-garde collective of Italian designers and architects, formed in 1981 under the leadership of Ettore Sottsass, seems to be undergoing somewhat of a revival in the second decade of the 21st Century. The reason for this renaissance may lie at the heart of the Memphis Group’s ethos and what this collective stood for: “Memphis was an ‘80s design phenomenon. Given the current retro preoccupation with mid 20th Century design and nostalgia for the boom-time 80’s, it doesn’t surprise me that the Memphis Group’s bold designs and flagrant individuality are enjoying another vogue, though I suspect it may be a short flowering,” says Christina Sumner, Principal Curator Design & Society at the Powerhouse Museum.
Be it short lived or a more lasting bloom, certainly marking its significance to the design community to this day is the teaming up of an Australian design company and one of the Memphis Group’s core members, Nathalie du Pasquier. Last year, Melbourne-based Third Drawer Down worked with du Pasquier to re-release a series of her designs on a range of homewares and textiles, including tea towels, napkins, placemats and mugs.
The exclusive project came about when Abigail Crompton, owner and founder of Third Drawer Down, came across work by du Pasquier on various blog sites that she frequents. Crompton was unaware at the time that the collaboration would correlate with the 30th year celebration and exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London last year (Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990) that sought to put the spotlight on the Memphis Group once more. “Everything in culture rotates or slides from side to side. I think the 30th year anniversary of Memphis and the amazing exhibition at V&A on Postmodernism, where Memphis were headlining the exhibition brought a new generation of followers to their work,” says Crompton.
A second collection is being launched at the moment at design fairs in Paris, New York and Tokyo through Third Drawer Down distributors. “Initially we licensed exciting patterns from the 1980s period; work Nathalie Du Pasquier produced during the Memphis phase,” says Crompton. “The second collection is exciting for both Nathalie and collectors of Memphis, as we commissioned Nathalie for new works that are featured across the collection of ceramics and textiles.”
The French-born, self-taught artist and textile designer, du Pasquier designed the first Memphis fabrics and floor rugs as well as tableware and furniture. According to Sumner, du Pasquier had a masterful and idiosyncratic way with colour and abstract geometric form. Crompton agrees: “Nathalie Du Pasquier is a pioneer of our modern time with her patterns and she has inspired many artists and designers over the past 30 years with her graphics and will continue to do so into the future.”
The Memphis Group were revolutionaries who broke away from mainstream modern design, and Sumner suggests, good taste is not generally a revolutionary priority. “While they probably cared little for good taste as such, the Group did care a great deal for good design. I think most contemporary designers would make a similar choice if required to,” she says.
Crompton posits that a fascination with the Memphis Group will always exist because of the curious nature of their designs: “I am unsure whether there is a particular significance to 2012 with Nathalie du Pasquier’s work as these designs are not constrained by a particular time and will always be seen as a little strange and shocking and will inspire all generations.”
The Powerhouse Museum collection houses a number of du Pasquier’s works from her time in the Memphis Group. These include two cotton furnishing prints, ‘Cerchio’ and ‘Zambia’ with “her characteristic abstract designs in singing colours,” explains Sumner. “We have a fabulous carpet called ‘California’ which is one of my favourite objects for its vision of dreamy clouds floating past behind sharply contrasting geometric forms, there’s a wild yellow tie bought in London in the mid ‘80s, and a bright red shirt with a design of cartoon space ships,” Sumner says.
The Third Drawer Down collection has been very successful thus far with orders from major department stores including Selfridges in London and design and museum stores around the world. The new range of homewares by Nathalie du Pasquier for Third Drawer Down is due for release in the coming months.