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  • The return of Memphis: how the 80s design staple found a new audience

    Memphis: the trend so nice, I covered it twice. Round II is up at the Guardian. And a supercut of favorite lines from the cutting room floor is below. Choose your own adventure. 

    Memphis, if you’ve never heard of it, is a lot like pornography—you know it when you see it.

    It was a stack of slanted rows of cheap plastic laminates masquerading as a bookshelf; it was the merciless pairing of surface patterns inspired by terrazzo flooring, ancient ziggurats, and bacteria; it was a cacophonous palette of primary reds, lemon yellows, and an array of neons piled high onto black-and-white stripes.

    In 1969, his Stockholm exhibition “Landscape for a Fresh Planet” featured “Altar: For the Sacrifice of My Solitude (Before It is Desecrated by the Deceit of Politics),” a cluster of ceramic totems Larsen describes casually as “a sociopolitical statement that uses the material culture of religions.”

    During his 60-year career, he poured these experiences into a range of vessels, from 1955 aluminum Raymor vases that recall the sculptures of Alexander Calder, to the unmistakably penis-shaped 1973 “Shiva” for BD Barcelona.

    The ’70s had been mired by war, recession, and the oil crisis, but for this newly prosperous society primed to embrace high and low aesthetics, garishness, synthetics, the melodrama of Miami Vice and a proliferation of cocaine, Sottsass was finally able to turn all the way up.

    By the late 90s, DayGlo’s afterglow ultimately faded, leaving an epically vapid kind of mediocrity in its wake. The aftershocks of a bomb Cara Greenberg dropped 1983 were finally catching up. The design historian had coined the term “midcentury modernism” as the title for a book on 1950s furniture, and a magazine called Wallaper* introduced a maturing Generation X, ready to shed the plaids of grunge and adopt a more respectable, grown-up aesthetic, to the works of George Nelson. In 2000, there was Dwell, which means by the time Mad Men had come around there was no turning back: midcentury modern had cemented itself as the look that would never die.

    Today, midcentury modern and Memphis are kind of managing the zeiteist not as antagonists, but more like bookends holding our contemporary nebulous aesthetic fixations upright; a ying to a yang, vanilla ice cream to some kind of crunchy, synthetic spicy-sweet topping. At the moment, the last two decades haven’t materialized any defining caricatures of themselves. Will we be remembered as a generation of globally-appealing anonymity? Or perhaps of nostalgic revivals? While we can’t see it while we’re still in it, what’s sure is that there’s been no single defining protagonist on Sottsass’s level since Sottsass. There may never be one again.