Memphis and the Post-Contemporary Object

The Memphis and the Post-Contemporary Object project explores the expressive possibilities of design, bridging the past and the present.

Hong Kong Design Institute2023.03.29

[The following content is provided by Hong Kong Design Institute]


Memphis and the Post-Contemporary Object is a project commissioned by the Italian Cultural Institute – Hong Kong. The project involves students from the Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI), supported by Novalis Art Design and Hong Kong Furniture and Decoration Association, collaborating to create new furniture pieces that showcase contemporary interpretation of the Memphis Group. The Memphis Group was an Italian design movement founded in 1981 by Ettore Sottsass, alongside Michele de Lucchi, Aldo Cibic, Matteo Thun, Marco Zanini, Martine Bedin, Nathalie Du Pasquier, and George Sowden. During its active years between 1981 and 1988, the Memphis Group defined the 1980s aesthetic and greatly revolutionising the design world. Ever since its establishment, Memphis has sought to rebel against the ‘uniform panorama of good taste’ of the time, where the principle, ‘form follows function’, reigned supreme.


In the world of Memphis, design has been liberated from rationality and entered the realm of poetry. Form no longer had to follow function, whereas design could be loud, colourful, and whimsical, adorned with clashing patterns. Objects were liberated from function and instead became visual objects rather than just tools or pieces of furniture. The pieces demonstrated by the Memphis Group and their international collaborators were shocking: mixing elegance and kitsch, playing with absurdity and irrational shapes, using plastic to laminate patterns that simulate precious materials, etc. Most of all, it introduced the pleasure of ‘play’ into the rational language of industrial production. Whether one loved it or hated it, the style rapidly amassed public and media attention worldwide and came to define the aesthetics of the 1980s. More importantly, it expanded the boundaries of design and emphasised the expressive possibilities of design as a mean of communication rather than just a tool.


The artistic approach to furniture design introduced by Memphis in the 1980s, which was then adopted by a large part of the world, saw in the following years a progressive weakening of the more explosive and charged aesthetics of its product language, in favour of a softer chromatic mainstream. Even as the scenario evolved in this way, Memphis has remained true to its artistic hybridisation of everyday functionality. Today, the most effervescent soul of emotional furniture appears once again in the contemporary visual scenario, awakened by native digital aesthetic languages characterised by bright colours and deconstructed geometries, adapting to an ‘insta-friendly’ approach designed to look good on the small screen on one's smartphone (which encourages e-commerce). The great opportunity that presents itself in Memphis today is the combination of the firepower of the visual languages typical of social networks (Instagram in the first place) with the cultural density of a brand that has shaped post-modern design history. With this in mind, each student designed a piece of furniture that declines the aesthetic identity of Memphis in a way consistent with the brand and, in line with the new aesthetic sensibilities native to digital networks at the same time, thereby bringing the freshness of the new contemporary visual scenarios into the real products, defining a new contemporality in which the physical products speak the language of the digital images, and turning it into a 'solid', physically present element.