Friday 13 January 2012

Material and Colour in Memphis

Drawing For a Lamp, Michele De Lucchi, 1981

A few extracts from Memphis' 1982 publication, edited and written by Barbara Radice, in which the group's voracious, vast, and dizzying Iconophagic appetite -which indiscriminately took in symbols, signs and images from Kampala to Tokyo and Calcutta, and materials from anywhere, and of any kind-  was served up as a banquet of exercises in the undermining and transgression of good taste, traditional idealist design values, and the calcified and unproductive relationships between the intellectual, the architect, the designer, fashion, industry, and consumer desire. Memphis claimed the full breadth of the sensual present (from Mc Donalds' plastic seating in Tallahassee, to a neon sign piercing the haze of a Kinshasa side-street) as the rightful property of whoever was without fear of its immense fecundity, and the domain of the feeling body as the legitimate recipient; and it was the designer whom they saw as being destined to orchestrate the intense, fun, colourful and liberatingly orgiastic union of the two.
"As Sottsass said in an interview, “As we know very well, when you try to define the function of any object, the function slips through your fingers, because function is life itself. Function is not one screw more or one measure less. Function is the final possibility of the relation between an object and life.”"

^Carlton Sideboard, Sottsass 1981 source


The plastic laminate shock, besides opening up new perspectives in furniture design, paved the way for a series of reflections, revisions, and research into the theme of materials, their quality, their possible combination and matching, their semantic and cultural charge. As a result, materials have begun to be read, chosen and utilised not only as tools or supports of design (important as these may be), but as active protagonists, privileged vehicles of sensory communication, self-sufficient cells that cohabit the design without mixing, each cell with its own personal story to tell. Marco Zanini points out: “Hoffmann often used precious materials like mother-of-pearl to draw lines. They were lines of mother-of-pearl, but they were essentially lines. If we use mother-of-pearl, we use square miles of it, because it’s the mother-of-pearl that tells the story and not the line.” The Memphis designers have worked on materials in two senses: developing and using “aseptic”, freedom-giving materials that have not been consumed by institutionalised cultures, and putting them together with bits or pieces of cultivated materials “to see if something else can be done.” This, as Sottsass explains, is a phenomenon that very often repeats itself in history, for instance when barbarians with their “non-culture” invade civilised zones.

Every institutionalised culture possesses a very precise catalogue of signs, ordered and assembled to represent the most general meaning that can be given to that culture. This catalogue makes it possible to communicate certain situations, to express certain things and not others, and everything is okay as long as a culture is still growing, fermenting and expanding. But when a culture reaches the point of boredom, when one begins to want to say other things, and especially when, according to Sottsass, “one is not able to say the things one thinks must be said,” then a “change of air” is necessary. New supports must be found in the “no-man’s land” of germinal cultures, where signs still have a sexy charge, a bittersweet flavour, and arouse shivers of surprise or pleasure because they still stagger in a kind of prenatal limbo, because no-one has yet charged them with symbols and meanings, because, as De Lucchi says, “you don’t relate them yet to anything or anybody  and you can project new possibilities onto them right away.”

In addition to plain or patterned plastic laminates, the Memphis catalogue of “aseptic” materials includes many other industrial products: printed glass, zinc-plated and textured sheet metals, celluloids, fireflake finishes, industrial paints, neon tubes, coloured lights bulbs, and so on. In the Memphis context these materials lose their high-tech connotations because they are never quoted as technological symbols but as textures, patterns, colour, density, transparency and glitter. They are immediate and directly sensual. Moving in this freedom-giving context, which appeals more to physical qualities than to the intellect, Memphis designers have even succeeded in revitalising cultivated, traditional, and familiar materials. Marble, for instance, is used in irreverent forms that do not correspond to recognised uses of that material, or it is taken out of context by coupling it with aluminium, fiberglass, or fireflake paints.

Many materials have been thrown off balance, stretched, and deformed to the point of becoming unrecognisable. Once a perplexed British journalist, stroking a bookcase in natural polished briar (used alongside a yellow and green snakeskin laminate in the same piece of furniture, Sottsass’ Beverley) sighed, “fantastic, it looks like plastic.”

Actually, the problem isn’t to make one thing look like another, nor to make it look like itself: whether it is marble that looks like plastic, plastic that looks like wood, or plastic that looks like plastic is of little importance. For Memphis designers the problem of truth and authenticity, and vice versa, the problem of fake, doesn’t exist. What matters is the image, the design, the final product, the figurative force, the communication. As with many pupils of Buddha, all Memphis designers seem convinced that “reality” as an absolute doesn’t exist, or if it does exist, it is what is. The free and easy, anarchic, and unrestrained use of unforeseen and unforeseeable materials, the combined use of heterogeneous, cheap and expensive materials, of rough and smooth textures, of opaque and sparkling surfaces, tend in the end to turn a piece of furniture into a complex system of communication. It becomes a small metaphorical novel, a story of volumes and surfaces, of signs and groups of signs, of their different flavours, and of the inner changes they undergo in order to appear in strange, attractive combinations and create new expressive circuits. What’s more, this linguistic earthquake has definitively altered the traditional image of formal coherence and compactness, laying the foundations for a future, more flexible and sophisticated stylistic syntax.

Gabon, Nathalie Du Pasquier, 1982. source


Prior to Memphis, there was no colour in furniture. With a few exceptions the idea of furniture as a centre of colour didn’t exist in the West. European furniture, on the whole, is made of “matter;” colour comes into play only as a detail in mother-of-pearl, ivory, or bronze inlays, and in marble intarsia works. Even the exceptions are few and far between: the extremely tenuous, lacquered colours of certain eighteenth century Venetian furniture, the black and white lacquers of certain Viennese furniture, tiny details of colour in Jugendstil furniture, and naturally De Stijl, where primary colours alone are used in an ideological manner. In De Stijl, as later in the Bauhaus, colour is chiefly “structural;” it emphasises the way the furniture is built. Rietveld’s “red and blue” chair, when it was designed in 1917, was not red and blue at all; the colour was added after 1919, apparently at Van Doesburg’s suggestion.

In Memphis, colour has never been an ideological vehicle. It does not exemplify building processes, nor does it sink its roots in stories of chromatic symbolism; it may be indirectly provocative, but it is above all a matter of linguistics. Introduced together with decoration in the software of design, colour is one of the active ingredients of the complex messages transmitted by the furniture object. It works as an enzyme to catalyse chemical reactions, it generates nervous impulses that open new doors of logic in the brain, it is a sort of perceptive jogging, an aerobics for lazy or drowsy sensory cells. Like jogging it requires commitment, determination, measure, enthusiasm, faith, and patience, and to serve a purpose, it must be used well.

Colour in Memphis is never “added.” As with decoration it is born with the design, forming an integral part of the structure. It alters the object’s molecules. It works as a mass, as an intrinsic feature of a certain form and volume. It is always a pigment and never a patina. “For this reason,” explains Michele De Lucchi, “there are no dominant colours or background colours in Memphis.” Memphis colour does not work through the set of relations of a chromatic system, but through proximity, as in the East (from India to Persia) or in Matisse (who learned colour from Oriental painting). The juxtapostition of colured masses, amterials, and volumes, like little taps on a tuning fork, make the whole colour vibrate, creating resonances, dissociations, even linguistic reverberations that respond from afar. Sottsass calls them “long distance correspondences.”

Memphis didn’t just bring colour into the game, but made sure to play it as a winning card; Memphis colour isn’t only sensational because it is there but because it is new-made.
Sottsass syas: “Anything that is tamed by culture loses its flavour after a while, its like eating cardboard. You have to put mustard on it or take little pieces of cardboard and eat them with tomatoes and salad. It’s a lot better if you don’t eat cardboard at all.”

At Memphis very little cardboard has been eaten. Memphis colour, especially that of the early days, is devoid of cultural references. It is hard, disjointed, shrill, totally toneless and free of chromatic laxity. It is flat, literal, without suggestions. It doesn’t live on reverberations and depth like most ancient colour, which is almost always allusive; nor is it related to the polished abstractions of De Stijl. Its chromatic quality doesn’t even resemble that of oriental colour, which often is equally intense, sharp and showy, but soft, very soft, sweet and sensual, full of joy and drenched with flavour. Memphis colur is comic-strip colour (De Lucchi, Bedin), plastic coloir, hot dogs, sundaes, artificial raspberry syrup colour (Peter Shire). It is washed-out, cheap gouache colour (Zanini), ridiculous colour (Sottsass), na├»ve colour (Sowden), third-world colour (Du Pasquier). In any case, whether it is picked up in California, the lower Mediterranean, Africa or Brianza, it is motel colour, suburban colour, five-and-dime colour.

The principle holds true in most cases, almost always. But colur in Memphis follows no fixed pattern or rigid guideline. Instead, as Zanini points out, it is “a changing shade of existence,” and as such even inside Memphis some slight changes have occurred. In three years of experimentations and experience the garish, funny, somewhat childish tones of the early days have been rounded off, harmonised, and classicised, just as the forms have become less ramshackle, less redundant, and simpler, with sharper, more self-assured, crystalline contours. Marble pieces (in coloured, veined, baroque marble) have come into being, and after a while black also appeared –a plastic black with an imitation marble finish, or a black gloss black, used as a dull mass along with shining aluminium, chrome plate glass, and fireflake. The suburbs are making their way into the heart of the city.

Asked about the origins, motives, and goals of this silent metamorphosis, Sottsass sighs and says that you cant go on doing the same things all your life, the explains: “I’ve always looked for nonculturised colour in the colours of children, and I’ve always drawn a blank because nobody understands this way of treating colour. Nobody understood that the problem was to look for colour in areas that no one had worked on. Anyway, that’s the way it was. Now that we have been through that experience and got rid of our inhibitions, so to speak, we can do almost anything we want. We can even allow ourselves a more cultivated, more sophisticated colour, because we know how to use it in a loose, detached way as though it had no links with any culture.”

As always the basic idea in Memphis is to shake off the conditioned routine and recover fresh energy, to follow the logic of the moment, to look at things always from new points of view, and examine every new possibility. Light or dark, pale or saturated, bright or dull, Memphis colour may be a matter of chance or necessity, of work or pleasure, never a problem.


article by Adam Nathaniel Furman

This article was first published over on TextBin

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