This year’s graduates of the Design Academy Eindhoven exhibited their final pieces at Dutch Design Week against the austere background of a former Philips lightbulb factory. This imposing white building, made entirely of concrete, glass, steel and right angles, provides a quiet backdrop for the melee of work shown there. The curators this year were the Amsterdam-based Italian design duo Formafantasma, who created an interesting and content rich show. There was however, a flash of relief from that austere industrial environment and the constant circling of plinths in the guise of abstract shapes and bright colours. Enter MetaMemphis.
But first a little context: the design movement Memphis was founded in 1981 and was made up of a group of free thinking architects and designers including the likes of Ettore Sottsass, Michele De Lucchi, Andrea Branzi, Barbara Raddice and Natalie du Pasquier. It was a movement completely of its time in the way it embraced the rampant consumer culture, adopted the current postmodernist ideology and produced objects and thinking that opposed the notion that form followed function. As Raddice, a journalist and artistic leader of the group explained ‘the movement involved the contagious, almost reckless desire to strike a blow against current circumstances, as well as against the weary “good taste”…that continued to drag along in houses furnished according to the canons of international “real design”.
This reaction against ‘real design’ and the modernist dogma of the Bauhaus, which in turn was a reaction to horrors of the First World War, galvanised action in those designers. But fast forward to 2016 and you can’t open a paper or look at a screen without reading headlines like ‘What have we left for our children’ and ‘Trump voted in as President’. So with our futures in direct peril it’s not surprising that these new graduates are referencing the past in such a way. They have no past collective trauma to forget or bright future to forge, only one to survive. But how do you build this future when there is no sense of techno-optimism? Well, on the shoulders of others and by referencing their work.
The term “MetaMemphis” was originally coined in 1989 for an exhibition that explored the legacy of the movement by getting artists to design domestic objects. But here it will be used to explain the trend coming out of The Netherlands, but more precisely The Design Academy Eindhoven. The trend forecaster LS:N Global mentioned this renewed interest in Memphis back in 2009, with reference to Studio Toogood and their interior for Italian food design agency Arabeschi di Latte during the London Design Week. But here, in Eindhoven in 2016, there is a twist: What was being shown this year was designers referencing Memphis but with a nod to social design. But it was the useful kind of social design that affects the immediate vicinity of the user, not the type that sees itself as a “planet saving” tool.
With social design being the zeitgeist of the moment it seemed these students were reacting against the idea that design and design thinking can solve all the world’s problems. But while the projects alluded to that colourful movement, they also wove an extra narrative into these amorphous products. One such example was ‘The Dependable Object’ collection by Chan Chiao Chun, and among those objects was a chair, or at least something you could sit on. The pink blob of bulbous foam looked more like a trussed piece of flesh than a chair. When not being used and lying supine on the floor it resembled something you’d stumble across in an abattoir. But when picked up and sat on, it takes on a whole new life and there’s a palpable sense of dependency between the object and the user. As Chun explains ‘the furnishing and the user need each other….objects become physical extensions of human experience rather than just subservient tools’. So even though the forms don’t directly reference Memphis in the traditional pattern sense. They do however offer a nod towards the soft undulating forms and pastel shades of the 81’ collection, as well as showing that postmodern design thinking is alive and well. Chun’s accompanying statement is also a direct descendant of one written by Branzi in the 1981 edition of the design magazine Modo. When setting out the ambitions of the proto- Memphis movement of ‘Il Nuovo Design’ one of his rules was:
“Going beyond ergonomic limits and concentrating on an affective relationship between man and his things.”
This link whether intentional or not sees a trend of young designers not afraid to use colour as a tool anymore and to re-explore form.
The design journalist Richard Horn described Sottsass as ‘interested in enriching objects rather than in making them simpler, purer, and more functional.’ This idea of ‘enriching’ objects is seen in the work of DAE graduate Aina Seerden, and her project ‘Your Digital Twin’. Your eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to those brightly coloured costumes hanging from the ceiling like pop scarecrows. A mixture of chevrons and the bacteria like patterns that Memphis were so famous for were all held in suspension in a mixture of bright pink, pastel green and acid orange fabrics. This selection of clothing, all complete with cartoonish death masks of the same colours, are intended to bring your social media persona to life. Seerden, having identified a series of digital archetypes that exist online, wants to challenge the way we behave in our second lives and make us pause and think the next time we leave that angry Youtube comment.This is an emphatic example of Memphis aesthetics and philosophy retuned with a social DAE twist. In such a digital landscape it’s positive to see that not all the answers lie in the virtual world and attention is still being paid to our physical one and how we react with it.
Moving away from The Design Academy but staying with its graduates, the POPCORE exhibition saw Tijs Gilde and Emma Wessel curate the work of 15 designers under the concept of ‘by millennials for millennials’. The bright white room saw neon and pastel objects laid out on the floor on top of light blue corrugated plastic sheeting; this simple act brought the pieces down from the lofty art world aesthetic of plinths and reminded us that they were indeed just chairs and tables, not sculptures. The show epitomised MetaMemphis, with the aesthetics of the previous century being re-interpreted by another generation of designers. Their distorted logo references a ‘captcha’, which is a program that discerns humans from online bots, a very 21st century statement about identity. According to Gilde, ‘the whole concept around POPCORE is to give an idea of the young designers’ notion that the borders between work and leisure are fading, this is why we also set up an array of events complementing the objects in the exhibition’. This holistic approach, to what will hopefully be seen as the beginning of a movement, sees a blurring of lives and attitudes. Popcore is the result of the digital generation, there are no walls and boundaries, and it makes plain the fact that everything is connected. They’re dropping a google pin in the ground and stating what they think about the industry, as well as the wider attitudes of the often maligned millennials.
Memphis said that design is never the solution to a problem, because no problem is ever a motionless event that can be isolated and grasped. But statements like these now seem cheap and plasticky. They can sum up a generation of designers who were all too eager to explore design but offer nothing in return but an opinion, a colourful shrug of the shoulders, and the judgemental pointing of a nicotine stained finger. But here in Eindhoven in 2016 you find the opposite, not only were problems grasped by Popcore but it’s very existence was born of a specific one as Gilde explains; ‘our way of working with shape and colour is a reaction to the past years, young people have been hearing how the world is going to be hard for them because of the financial crisis for years now, the image of the future was painted rather negative’. This statement manifests its self in the work of Anton Hendrik Denys and Wesley De Boer who were both responding to privacy issues with pieces that divided living spaces. These structures bend, fold and hang to create new situations and scenarios within the domestic landscape. In turn they generate some autonomy in rental spaces where you’re so often told you can’t change anything. And as this generation is constantly reminded that they will never own property, these are very timely objects to witness and interact with.
But MetaMemphis is not a worrying trend, it’s not asking us to plug ourselves into pieces of dubious technology, or making grand attempts to save the world. What this movement is doing is building on the brain power of those Italian design partisans and moulding it with the hands of hindsight. It’s not enough to just rehash patterns and not change anything, and it’s not enough to just use design as a medium to make a statement and not attempt to try and remedy the situation. After all, design is about problem solving, exploring our built environment and going deeper than surface decoration. So lets all hold our breath to inject some urgency into this fledgling movement, because change needs to happen and hopefully this group will be part of it.
Words: Josh Plough