About the artwork
The protests in recent years against international capitalism and consumerism make it easy to forget their ancestor, the protest movement of 1968 and thereabouts. Designers were caught up in this movement. They started looking critically at what modern design had been supposed to do. Modernists had said that design would help solve social problems, that it would make people's lives better. But they could see that the effort in modern design was going in quite different directions. Modernism was providing a sort of official corporate style for international big business, a style that was rational but faceless, soulless and bland. There were a lot of beige leather sofas, things in plain colours, chrome and glass coffee-tables. All so, so correct, well-balanced, tasteful. And big business was peddling consumerism, selling the dream of a perfect lifestyle with relentless optimism. The Italian designer Ettore Sotsass, who designed this cabinet, described the dream like this:
'young people running in slow motion along the Hawaian beaches, hair blowing in the wind and white teeth flashing smiles because their toothpaste is infallible.'
Sotsass became part of an alternative design movement known as Anti-Design. He and his friends thought modern design's big mistake had been this form and function business. Putting the emphasis on function meant design became a sort of private language for designers and engineers, the people who knew how things were made and how they operated. Everything else had been ignored: the whole social and cultural context in which things were designed and used.
So who was this young tearaway Sotsass? Actually, he was 50 years old. He was an established industrial designer who worked for - you guessed it, big business. He had designed computers and typewriters for Olivetti in Milan for many years. I suppose you could say that he had been a slow starter, in the sense that the start of his career had been delayed by the 2nd World War, like so many of his generation all over Europe. But he had always been interested in two things - first the humdrum everyday things that people take for granted and hardly notice, what you might call design's urban vernacular. Secondly in very ancient cultures - Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians. He said:
'Those artefacts emerge from the darkness of antiquity with a power, not of aesthetics as we call it today, but a power to make contact with life's most hidden mysteries.'
It was these things that made him believe it was possible to do better than bland corporate design. He said: 'We are pursued all the time by enigma - it is what the culture of rationalism, or American consumerism, doesn't want to hear or understand.' And he felt that Modernism had come to the end of its run. He said: 'After a while, all cultures come to an almost automatic use of their language. You know already how the door is made, what the window, the roof and the facade will be like: then you are not making culture any more, but silence.'
The idea is that a culture develops a precise catalogue of signs - which is fine while the culture is growing and expanding. But then it reaches the point of boredom - what was once communication becomes just a cliche. Sotsass thought modernism had run out of things to say. Everyone knew its messages only too well already.
In the 1960s and early 70s Italian design flourished and Italian industry did too: modernism was selling very nicely. But in the later 70s industry and the economy staggered under the impact of oil crises and faltered. In 1978 Sotsass joined another designer, Alessandro Mendini, in a group called Studio Alchymia, whose aim was to reform design. Mendini saw it as a studio for creating one-off, radical pieces and events for exhibition to attract public attention: he was interested in criticising the design establishment. He was not interested in putting designs into production, actually making things for people's homes. His approach seemed too negative to Sotsass, who wanted to see work manufactured.
Sotsass was still heading a design studio for Olivetti, and he also had his own independent design practice. There was now a younger generation of designers who had been influenced by his ideas. They were interested in things that were kitsch, or camp, and in popular culture: all the things that Modernist designers thought should be avoided in design. They felt design had got separated from real life and gone sterile. For an aspiring designer of furniture or household goods, Milan was the centre of the world, and so there was an international group of young designers, all under 30, half his age, but all interested in what Sotsass was interested in. They formed around Sotsass in 1980 and the group decided to exhibit in Milan at the furniture fair in the following September, 1981.
Their designs evolved together. What they shared was a sense of youthful optimism, a delight in pattern, colour, sometimes surface texture, and always fantastic form. It was design made for the age of media publicity, design that communicated instantly with the viewer. The group must have a suitable name to publicise it: on the record player at the time was a Dylan song. 'Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again'. They decided Memphis was the perfect name. It suggested the blues, Tennessee, rock ‘n' roll, American suburbs - and then the Egypt of the Pharaohs, ancient religious rituals. They made the first drawings in February 1981. By the time the show opened in September they produced between them 31 bits of furniture, 3 clocks, 10 lamps, and 11 ceramics. They did not make them themselves, they were only designers. They persuaded small Italian firms of manufacturing craftsmen to make them up as one-offs or a few at a time.
When the show opened, it was the sensation of that year's Milan furniture fair. The two largest pieces were by Sotsass, and attracted a great deal of comment, both positive and negative. You certainly couldn't ignore them. One of them was this cabinet, which Sotsass named the Casablanca.
The Casablanca is a cabinet but in relation to its size it doesn't have much storage space. That's clearly not what it's about. It does the same job as those showy cabinets raised up on legs which were the grandest kind of furniture in the 17th century, it's designed to be an eye-catcher in a big room, to be a focus and a talking-point. The shape of it also is a bit human, it looks as though it's waving its arms, it's clearly furniture which doesn't take itself too seriously. And it's covered with this formica, this plastic laminate with printed patterns on. Formica was something you expected to find on a kitchen worktop, not a posh piece of designer furniture. Sotsass called it 'a material with no culture'. That was what he wanted. He said it was neighbourhood suburban coffee bars that gave him the idea for using formica. The patterns came from unregarded surfaces like bar floors and what he described as 'the spongy paper of government account books'.
He was making something new and unfamiliar by using what was familiar in a different context. It is subversive design, breaking the rules of good taste as understood in 1981, and changing the language of design. Communication is now more important than function. That is why decoration has taken over. Sotsass said ' decoration as we imagine it involves disregard of the support structure as the basic structure of the design.'
The catalogue for the 1981 show said 'We are all sure that Memphis furniture will soon go out of fashion' which shocked the critics - you weren't supposed to say things like that, designs were supposed to be classics and last for ever. The Memphis designers were talking the language of this year's model, taking the great hidden principle of consumer design and sticking it up on a pedestal.
Sotsass drew attention to the importance of metaphor and imagination. He said 'You need furniture you can talk to'. He wanted to create an expressive, emotional relationship between people and things. What he aimed to do with this cabinet is best expressed by the name of his previous group with Mendini, Studio Alchymia: he's taking ordinary, banal materials and patterns and magically turning them into something extra-ordinary, it is pure alchemy.