I wrote a lot of words about Memphis and Postmodernism! Hope you enjoy it…
A CRITICAL AND CONTEXTUAL DISCUSSION OF ETTORE SOTTSASS’ ‘CARLTON’ BOOKSHELF AND POSTMODERNISM IN THE 1980S
It is understood that mid-century Modernists lived by the rule of “form following function”, then it is therefore likely that Postmodernists, such as Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis group, lived by the ideal that “function follows fun”. This essay will look at the unconventional design of Ettore Sottsass’ Carlton bookshelf, how it challenged established design values and pushed Postmodern design into the popular culture of the 1980s.
The post-war period saw design ruled by the idea that there was a right way to do things in a tasteful and rational way – Modernism. While many designs were pleasing, sometimes beautiful and always functional, they were often rather sanitary and devoid of any historical reference or individuality. The roots of Postmodernism began in the early 1970s. Modernists believed that their rationale of “Less Is More” (Mies van der Rohe) would result in a better world inspired by science and universal truths. Postmodernists believe the opposite; that “Less is a bore” (Robert Venturi) and that society required as many references as possible in order to achieve a subjective conclusion. They want to challenge audiences and challenge what they saw as Modernist blandness, to compel society to question why things are the way that they are or are not.
The rise of Postmodernism in the 1970s and 1980s was noted as a dynamic, quirky and often unsettling creative voice. Postmodernism can be seen as a philosophy as opposed to a movement. It is a critique of Modernism, of what is presumed to be, or are told is real. Postmodernists say that structures are social constructs, like gender and class. Postmodernism holds no “absolute truth” or binary (Open University, 2017). A key marker for the “death” of Modernism, particularly Modernist architecture came in 1972 as noted by Charles Jencks. The collapse of a block of flats at Ronan Point in London and the explosive demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe estate in St Louis brought the idea that Modernism had socially failed to the attention of the public in a vivid, violent manner (Jencks, 1996, pp 30).
Modernist designers pursued clarity, logic and anonymity. Common artistic traits of Postmodernism are pastiche and eclecticism, with a pluralist attitude. It looked for a new situation where art could remain critical but not from a position of superiority – high art was no longer to occupy a privileged space. Postmodernism rejects the idea that art is self-defining and encourages society to interpret objects and images for itself. According to sociologist Herbert Gans (cited in Holland, 2011), there are a number of different societal taste cultures that broadly identify with the same levels of the class system – highbrow or good taste for the elite, and kitsch or bad taste for the proletariat. His analysis suggested that the manifestation of these taste cultures was generally in direct challenge to the preferences of the establishment. This fundamentally was linked to the aesthetic preferences of the socioeconomic class that traditionally included architects and designers. “Taste is a sticky issue that brings with it issues of wealth, lifestyle and class.” (Holland, 2011, pp.95.) Gans concluded that, in order to be successful, designers would need to engage with tastes outside of their caste. In rethinking the relationship between highbrow and popular culture, Postmodernists reconsidered the differences between not just architecture, but also artworks and other consumer goods such as furniture.
Designer Ettore Sottsass is quoted as saying “design is the design of [a] lifestyle” (cited in Wu Jue, 2009) and that the design of an object should include consideration for three things: the object’s practical function; if and how the object effects a person’s day to day operation; and that the design gives the object symbolic or spiritual value. Furniture holds a prime position within lifestyles – it can determine the nature of a lifestyle, and lifestyle in turn can dictate the nature, design and diversification of furniture. As such, designers needed to consider not only the practical functions of furniture, but how people interact with or consume an object as part of their lifestyle. (Wu Jue, 2009).
Ettore Sottsass was born in Innsbruck, Austria in 1917. He was an artist and architect who saw drawing as a way of thinking through his hands (Emeco, 2010). Sottsass travelled to India, Thailand and Nepal and became fascinated by their culture and handicrafts, and of the textures and techniques found in their vernacular art. He discovered that there was colour and emotion in eastern design and that even the poorest people wore colourful clothes and had brightly decorated homes. Following his trip to the Far East, Sottsass visited the USA and fused his eastern inspiration with western images from Pop Art and the Beat Generation (Ill. 1). Sottsass’ typewriter designs for Olivetti made the previously cold, industrial machines fun, friendly and sexy (Ill.2).
While working for Olivetti, Sottsass designed a series of striped cupboards in screenprinted laminated plastic for the Italian furniture manufacturer Poltranova. These were a starting point for his investigations on colour, surface finishes and decoration, and the basis for his Memphis designs of the 1980s. “Design does not mean giving a shape to fairly trivial products, for a fairly unsophisticated industry. It is a way of seeing life, politics, eroticism , food and even design itself.” (Sottsass, cited in Rose, 1985)
Following the rise of Pop Art in the 1960s, the end of the decade was an era of protest. The hippie counter-culture and student uprising raised issue with the corrupting effect of an increasingly consumer-based society and in the idea of standardisation as a vehicle of social progress. They highlighted the doubts and fears felt by the post-war generation and saw the need to reappraise the reasoning of the Modernist movement, rejecting the apparently utopian society created by their parents. This was soon followed by the oil crisis which brought doubt to the idea that mass commercial production was viable. Design projects with a more theoretical and cultural purpose began to take precedence over functional ones. Architecture and design were regarded as political tools and the first signs of so-called Postmodernism could be seen.
Sottsass was a key player in the anti-establishment activities of an anti-design movement in Italy known as Radical Design who were particularly critical of what they saw as excess in Italian design. In 1973, members of the groups Archizoom and Super Studio, including Sottsass, formed a school of counter design known as Global Tools (Ill.3). Global Tools was conceived not to follow or found any current design model, but to exist outside of any kind of formality and “stimulate the free development of individual creativity” (Bourgonuovo & Franceschini, 2015) though the use of natural materials and traditional techniques. They sought to break up the Modernist system, which they felt offered no possibility of self-expression outside of what was rational, by stopping the corrosion of traditional design values. The group’s leaders no longer accepted the rules laid down by their sponsors and manufacturers and spent time designing utopian projects such as Archizoom’s No-Stop City, which theorised that future cities would not exist in the traditional sense, but be populated by a nomadic society inhabiting infinite objects and micro-environments while ignoring any practical realities (Molinari, 2017). Using alternative media, often the written word and photography instead of an actual product, was a common way for Global Tools’ designers to express themselves (Sparke, 1983). They deliberately exploited bad taste and kitsch as a means of leaving functionalism and purist thinking behind, and so their designs were essentially experimental and anti-commercial.
Sottsass left Global Tools having tired of the political discussions which had overtaken his design work and joined the Alchimia practice in 1977. Alchimia’s main concerns were redesigning ordinary objects and everyday furniture and reviving themes from earlier periods by reworking reproductions of classic furniture designs by adding colourful decoration. They mixed elements of kitsch and lowbrow design with decorated surfaces and high quality workmanship. Alchimia wanted to reassert how an object could have a symbolic as well as practical function, rejecting the idea of mass-production as the norm and promoting their works’ cultural aspects. Dissatisfied with redesigning and reviving, Sottsass left Alchimia in 1980 and set up Memphis.
Memphis was a group of designers from around the world who sought to bring colour and decoration in to the home using a combination of expensive and cheap materials in a variety of styles. They looked to challenge the standardisation and rationalisation of modern design, producing a combination of furniture and artifacts in an artistic as opposed to functional or commercial constraint. “When I was young, all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism. It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.” (Sottsass, cited in Howarth, 2015)
Memphis embraced ornament, decoration and colour as a means of reintroducing social meaning to design and to reconnect with the past. They shared Ventauri’s opinion that the need for design to reflect and add meaning to contemporary culture be put back onto the agenda, while juxtaposing classical architecture and popular imagery, consumerist and the unconventional, humour and the banal. Memphis combined patterned materials, laminates and veneers with bright colours and geometric shapes to create new and strange objects. Memphis looked to be as eclectic and unpredictable as the popular culture with which they wanted to reconnect.
Carlton (Ill.4) was a key piece in the Memphis group’s first collection in 1981. With an emphasis on its aesthetics, Carlton visually overturns any preconceptions of what a functional object should look like and how a person lives with said object. It questions any conventional furniture forms by combining a bookcase, room divider and dresser into one object. Carlton is a freestanding unit made from sections of medium density fibreboard that are laminated in lively colours – yellow, orange, green, blue and black. Despite the use of cooler blues and greens, Carlton does not invoke a feeling of coldness, it appears warm. These pieces are joined symmetrically in a combination of horizontal, perpendicular and angled surfaces on top of two bright red drawers which in turn stand on a base that is covered in a pattern called Bacterio which Sottsass designed in 1978 (Howarth, 2015). At close inspection Bacterio resembles the random patterns made when observing bacteria under a microscope, but from a distance also looks like terrazzo which is a throwback to 18th Century Venetian paving – overtly throwing back to the Postmodern ideal of merging the high and lowbrow.
The construction of Carlton appears haphazard and counter-intuitive for a bookshelf – shelving generally being a series of parallel, horizontal planks within a rectangular frame – but it is a series of visible and implied triangles that support the horizontal shelves. The angled shelves support any books that may fall over on a standard bookshelf. The actual shape of the entire object is open to interpretation and could be seen to resemble a many-armed Hindu deity, or a friendly robot or “a triumphant man atop a constructed chaos of his own making” (MoMA, undated). There is no back to the piece, so it can be used to divide a space and store books and artifacts while not blocking out any light. Carlton is narrower at the top which gives an arrow effect drawing the eye downwards. This also means that, while being physically large at 196cm high, it is not overly imposing in a room.
By using cheap industrial materials, arguably a Modernist trait far removed from Memphis’ raison d’être, Carlton subverts the high and low; it is expensive, yet can be reproduced easily and at relatively low cost. The combination of inexpensive materials and vivid colours create an object that is visually exciting yet functionally banal – it is a bookcase. It is a paradox; tacky, cheerful and cheaply made, yet also a luxury object. In terms of semiotics, Memphis changed the rhythm of a structure, for example, by using materials such as laminates that were formerly only used in kitchens and using them in the production of living or bedroom furniture. Previously this would have been seen as being in bad taste or not the proper thing to do, but in a Postmodern context it frees up creativity through unconventionality (Rose, 1985). Again, this is in stark contrast to the purity pursued by the Modernists. Glenn Adamson of the V&A (2010) suggests that this type of object existed purely to be presented in a photograph as it was not intended to be mass-produced but would still gain mass-attention and spread the design via images (Buchanan, 2010). Design magazines would find and publish a photograph of something beautiful even though the object might not ever actually be produced. As such, design was consumed without one realising (Rose, 1985). It can be argued that the consumption of such imagery became part of how one constructs their own identity, however aspirational and out of reach that reality may be.
By the mid 1980s Memphis had achieved their goal of reaching the wide, popular market as opposed to just the elite. Entry to the mainstream meant widespread imitation by manufacturers which undermined and ignored the group’s early ideology of avoiding mass production. Swedish furniture company Ikea featured textile designs in their 1987 catalogue (Ill.5) that could be mistaken for Memphis patterns and Swiss manufacturer Swatch later hired Memphis’ Matteo Thun to design their collectible watches. The 1980s were dominated by the stylistic contradictions that set Memphis apart from other Postmodern design. In 1981, Memphis was anti-establishment, by 1987 their iconography was ubiquitously connected to the 1980s.
The Memphis designers’ response to the superabundant consumer culture of the 1980s reflects in the colours, forms and materials of their pieces in a come-one-come-all approach. However, in spite of their fun and whimsical designs, there is something unsettling about their apparent lack of “right”or “wrong” as was evident in Modernist design. This is likely a social comment on a decadent society gone amok, where fashions rapidly change and planned obsolescence is the norm. Carlton is currently produced to order in an unlimited edition and costs over €13,000 which is not within the price range of the average consumer and quantifies the infiltration of popular culture into the wealthy upper classes. The Memphis pieces can be seen as totems to the horror – and splendor – of consumer culture, particularly the regressive qualities of late 20th Century consumerism – making money from others to buy and possess things that other people want.
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