Form Over Function 

With “Memphis in Nashville,” Zeitgeist highlights the Italian design collective who challenged modernism, and did it with style

With “Memphis in Nashville,” Zeitgeist highlights the Italian design collective who challenged modernism, and did it with style

Memphis in Nashville

Dec. 12-Jan. 11

Zeitgeist Gallery

1819 21st Ave. S. 256-4805

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat.

Opening reception: 6-9 p.m. Dec. 12

If you think that “Memphis” is only a place name, think again. Memphis is also a movement. In the early 1980s, a group of Italian designers were bored with the mantras of modernism—“form follows function,” “truth to materials,” “less is more”—and the objects such an aesthetic produced. They’d had enough of the Bauhaus revival of the 1970s. They were impatient with marketability and the ergonomically correct. They yawned at the endless manipulations of chrome and glass and leather, the rigid suppression of ornament, the austere palette of black and white and beige and gray, with just maybe—if you were very careful—a touch of red.

The group, led by the Milanese Ettore Sottsass, began to design furnishings with complex, eccentric profiles instead of the clear, spare outlines of Mies and Breuer, Gropius and Le Corbusier. They chose colors that were hot, not cool, used in staccato patterns instead of monochromatic planes. In place of luxe materials, they employed plastic laminates. Most defiantly, they challenged the functionalist code with objects that subverted purpose. Lamps were luminous sculptures rather than task-oriented. Chairs looked—and were—occasions of discomfort for all but the temporarily perched. They made not rational sense, but fun.

The designers got the commercial backing to produce a collection for public presentation in 1981 and gave it the name “Memphis.” They liked the double-coded, high-low cultural allusions: to the capital of Old Kingdom Egypt, which represented a non-Western, nonclassical tradition; and to Elvisland, which signified tacky funk. Their first catalog featured the skyline of the city in Tennessee. Twenty-plus years later, Memphis has moved to Nashville in the form of an exhibit at Zeitgeist Gallery curated by Scott Reilly.

Reilly is the guru of retromodern.com, an Atlanta store and online emporium. He is also a Harvard Egyptology major who once worked for the Archaeology Institute of America. He subsequently chose to excavate the potsherds of 20th century cutting-edge design—the kind of stuff that virtually screams its period. He recently put together the exhibit “Mid-Century to Pluralism: The Aesthetics of Modern Design” for Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport.

The exhibit Reilly has put together for Zeitgeist features objets from the first six Memphis collections—1981-86—when the movement was in its heyday. “You have to think of these objects in their context,” he explains. “It was the days of Reagan, materialism, New Wave punk, the garish colors of Miami Vice. Transportation and communication technologies enabled the world to move faster. You could have a day meeting in a distant city and be home for dinner. You were tracked by voice-mail. Memphis manifested all this visually—by bucking rationalism, by its capriciousness and sense of impermanence, by its agitated patterns.”

If this sounds about as much fun as a stress test on a treadmill, forget the historical theorizing and have a look. The showpiece at Zeitgeist is the “Carlton,” a 6-foot-by-6-foot so-called bookcase designed by Sottsass in brightly colored laminate for the first Memphis collection. I say “so-called” because some of the shelves slant, and some of the spaces would hold only the tiniest of volumes. “The Carlton all but defies you to use it functionally,” Reilly says. “It seems to say, ‘If you use me as a bookcase, you’ll deface me.’ ”

The “First Chair,” by Michele De Lucchi, is another Memphis icon with a similar message. It has the visual clues of a chair—seat, back, arms—but in a combination that looks sculptural, not supportive. “It’s great in an entrance hall,” Reilly says, “but I’d never use it for a dining room.” The “Kristall” table, also by De Lucchi, is an oddly asymmetrical combination of yellow top, base in a frenzied pattern of black and white, and blue legs that look ready to walk across the room. “The Memphis collections were presented in a gallery setting, as fine art,” Reilly says, “because they function only on an aesthetic level.” The most obviously useful pieces in this exhibit are the jewelry, because necklaces and earrings and pins have no function beyond the decorative.

The Memphis designers not only made furnishings with arbitrary forms; they gave them arbitrary names. The form and materials of De Lucchi’s “Riviera” chair—an uncomfortable 90-degree angle of white laminate with pink fabric squares and gaudy blue legs—negates the allusion to luxurious leisure. A lamp by Sottsass that looks like a mechanical flamingo is the “Tahiti.” An hors d’oeuvre tray in pearly porcelain by Matteo Thun is the “Manitoba.” The accompanying pepper box, appetizer holder, toothpick holder and salt shaker sport the monikers of the Great Lakes: “Ontario,” “Erie,” “Superior” and “Michigan.” The oh-so-rational modernists tended to the baldly descriptive, e.g., “Chair With Three Legs.” The Memphians seem to have picked their titles because they just liked the sound of the words.

So why would anyone buy this stuff? “It was a hit in the ’80s,” Reilly says, “because that was the period of the great art boom, when prices soared and everyone was a collector. People bought it because it gave them status, which is ironical in that the impulse behind Memphis was to subvert the status that modernism had achieved. I’ve always thought it perfect casting that the home of the couple in Ruthless People—played by Bette Midler and Danny DeVito—is full of Memphis.”

Today people collect Memphis as a period piece to blend with their other periods, Reilly says. “A little of Memphis goes a long way in the interior, which is why it’s best treated as a piece of art. It opens your eyes to see a chair or a table or a lamp as sculpture. Lots of furniture that preceded Memphis did look like sculpture. Memphis just pointed that out.”

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