Our venues

Also in this section…?

Transcript of Casablanca cabinet podcast

The object that I'm going to be talking about is this 'The Casablanca Cabinet' designed by Ettore Sotsass in 1981.

The protests in recent years against international capitalism and consumerism make it easy for us to forget that the ancestor of those protests, the protest movement of 1968 and thereabouts, had certain repercussions for design. Designers were also caught up in this movement and they started looking critically at what modernism had been supposed to do.

Modernists had after all said design would help solve society's problems. That it would make the world a better place. But by 1968 people could see that the effort in modern design was going in quite different directions. What modernism was providing was a sort of official corporate style for international big business. A style that was rational but was also seen as faceless, soulless and bland.

There were an awful lot of beige leather sofas, things in plain colours, chrome and glass coffee tables. All very correct, well balanced, tasteful. Of course this same big business was peddling consumerism, selling the dream of a perfect lifestyle with relentless optimism and, of course, peddling a lot of things that were in a very different kind of taste.

Sotsass, the designer of this piece, actually described the consumer dream as 'young people running in slow motion along the Hawaiian beaches, hair blowing in the wind and white teeth flashing smiles because their toothpaste is infallible'. He became part of an alternative design movement known as anti-design. It included radical architectural groups with names like Super Studio and Archizoom.

Like most protest movements of the sixties, they didn't actually make much, most of what they did was talking. But they made people think about where design was going wrong and about how to put it right. Basically, Sotsass and his friends thought modern design's big mistake had been the whole business about form and function in design. Modernism had put the emphasis on function and as a result design had become a private language for designers and engineers - people who knew how things were made and how they operated.

But everything else to do with design had been ignored and in particular the whole social and cultural context in which things were designed and used (who is it for basically) had all been ignored.

So, who was this young tearaway Sotsass? Actually, by the late sixties he was 50 years old. He was in fact an established industrial designer who works for, you guessed it, big business. Those very big companies. 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 Second World War, like so many of his generation all over Europe. But he had always been interested in two things. Firstly, humdrum everyday things that people take for granted and hardly notice. What you might call design's urban vernacular. But the other thing he'd been interested in was very ancient cultures like Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, that sort of thing.

He said, 'those artifacts 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'.

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 anymore, but silence'.

You see his 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 eventually the point of boredom. What was once communication becomes just a cliche because everybody knows the language already.

He's saying modernism has run out of things to say. Everybody knows its messages only too well now.

If you want to see what Sotsass was designing at this time, go to the top floor in Manchester Art Gallery and look at the mirror that they've got there - a big mirror called 'Ultrafragola' which he designed in 1970 made by the Poltronova company. It's like something out of the dressing room of a 1950s film star. It's a big mirror, with a wavy neon-lit frame that goes around in. Very Marilyn.

In the 1960s and 70s Italian design flourished and Italian industry did too. Modernism was selling very nicely. Whatever Sotsass and his friends thought about it. By the later seventies, industry and the economy was staggering under the impact of oil crises and they were faltering. The position was now very different. In 78 Sotsass joined another designer Alessandro Mendini in a group called Studio Alchymia - alchemy studio - whose aim was to reform design.

Unfortunately they had very different ideas as to what the group was for. Mendini saw it as a studio for creating one-off radical pieces and events for exhibition - basically to get attention. He saw it as a pr exercise, he was interested basically in criticising the design establishment.

He wasn't interested in putting designs into production, he wasn't interested in actually making designs for people's homes. That's what Sotsass was interested in and he thought Mendini's approach was much too negative. Sotsass wanted to see work manufactured.

Not surprisingly, the group broke up. We can get an idea of what Sotsass wanted to inject into design from some of his ideas at this time. Among them were 'Design for a door to enter into darkness'. Another one called 'Design of a door where someone doesn't let you in'. so you can see what he's interested in, he's interested in experiences around a design and the mood or feeling associated wtih it.

At this time, he 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, all the things they thought were bad taste.

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 he's 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, out of group discussions and sharing. What they shared was a sense of youthful optimism, a delight in pattern, colour, sometimes surface texture, and always fantastic form. This was quite unlike cool, reticent, modernism.

It was design made for the age of media publicity, design that communicated instantly with the viewer, you couldn't ignore it whatever you thought about it. 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 other one was a room divider called the Carlton.

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 poshest 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.

Well, he and his friends must have succeeded in changing the language of design because nowadays in order to show this cabinet was once shocking I have to give you a historical lecture. What has happened? The radicals have changed the mainstream of design so that it's much more knowing about the art of communication. There's a lot more wit and fun than there used to be.

In the 1980s, furniture and lighting designers were hugely influenced by this stuff. But for other things like electrical appliances, as usual in design, it took longer. So it wasn't until the nineties when they changed. I think the classic example that shows these ideas have come through is the Dyson vacuum cleaner which shows that the spirit of Memphis lives on and has definitely become absorbed into the common culture.

Thank you