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Clare Melhuish reviews. .

The remembrance of Memphis and the '80s 'media sensation'

The Design Museum's exhibition on Memphis, celebrating the 20th anniversary of its formation, is not extensive but indicates 'a growing interest in early 1980s aesthetics'. Can this be true? Just when it seemed that '90s post-recession 'minimalism', restrained good taste and a quasi-ecological economy of expression represented a permanent sea-change in the face of material culture in the contemporary era.

If it is, though there does not seem to be too much evidence for it so far, perhaps it should be interpreted as a response to the gloomy analyses of global economic downturn and forecasts of imminent enforced belt-tightening.

Memphis was founded as a design collective in Italy in 1981, by Ettore Sottsass and others, and shocked the design world when it exhibited for the first time at the Milan Furniture Fair that year.

Its anti-rational, anti-functionalist stance, couched in a multiplicity of vivid colours and produced in cheap materials such as plastic laminate, marked a significant break with Modernist dogma - particularly the rationalist tradition rooted in Italy. In essence, it challenged purism and intellectualism, taking its name from Bob Dylan's song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again - aligning itself with popular culture as represented by the rock and pop world rather than the traditional high-culture framework of architecture and fine art.

The Design Museum suggests Memphis 'caused a media sensation after years of drab rationalism', and that one of the main reasons for its success was its ability to communicate its ideas through the media. Yet it would be difficult to claim that the work had a significant impact on the evolution of popular taste. And ultimately, the collective was extremely short-lived.

As the exhibition suggests, pieces such as the 'boxing-ring' of tatami mats were conceived more as a setting for photocalls for group members, than as a serious contribution to the development of the domestic living-space in the late 20th century.

Although Memphis cited the suburbs as a source of inspiration (in a way which does indeed predate the flowering of contemporary interest in suburban culture), it can hardly be claimed that its own work has fed back into that culture in any significant way.

Memphis made it chic to use cheap, gaudy materials and expose the components out of which a piece was made rather than constructing a smooth, homogeneous, profile. But the work is distinctively awkward and clumpy in form and scale, with a slight edge of surrealism which, ironically, demands a level of explicit intellectual engagement over and above pure sensual enjoyment.

The movement termed the work 'bisexual', in its ambiguity between the '(male) logic of construction', and the '(female) biological act of production', but any suggestion of eroticism is consistently undermined by the self-conscious cleverness of the work.

Memphis Remembered is showing at the Design Museum, London, until 4 November, and then again from 24 November to 27 January 2002

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