Design Icons: Memphis Milano’s Arizona Rug
Great Moments in Design: A post-modern masterpiece for the living room
Words— Jeremy Freed
Surveying the 20th century’s landscape of design you could easily come to the conclusion that there are a few key elements that turn an object into an icon. Most of the pieces that achieve icon status—furniture, buildings, cars—spring from the ideals of movements like De Stijl and the Bauhaus, whose founders valued simplicity, functionality and mass-production above all else. There are a few 20th century icons, however, that don’t adhere to these rules, and are all the more remarkable as a result. The work of the Memphis group, including this stunning area rug by Nathalie du Pasquier, falls into this category.
So the story goes, when Italian architect Ettore Sottsass was in a taxi on his way to the Milan Design Fair in 1981, the crowds were so thick and frenzied he thought a bomb had gone off nearby. In a way it had. The Milan design fair of 1981 marked the debut of Memphis Milano, a group of artists led by Sottsass, whose colourful, bombastic style would go on to define the aesthetic of the entire decade.
Until the appearance of Memphis at the Milan Design Fair, 20th century design had been largely defined by the pursuit of simplicity: clean lines, monochrome palettes, simple shapes. With its garish colours, oddball patterns and pure exuberance, Memphis threw most of this out the window. People loathed it and loved it in equal measure, and for the Memphis artists this was all part of the fun. “It is no coincidence that the people who work for Memphis don’t pursue a metaphysic aesthetic idea or an absolute of any kind, much less eternity,” mused Sottsass. “Today everything one does is consumed. [Memphis] is dedicated to life, not to eternity.”
Nathalie du Pasquier grew up in Bordeaux, France, and moved to Milan in the late 1970s, where she met Sottsass and the cadre of other like-minded artists who made up the Memphis group. From 1981 to 1986 du Pasquier designed textiles, carpets and furniture pieces that helped to establish Memphis as the most significant design movement of its era. It’s not hard to see the spread of influence: MTV, which launched in 1981, borrowed heavily from Memphis, as did iconic films like Back to the Future and popular fashion brands like Esprit.
“Nathalie’s early work for the Memphis Group was definitive of the early postmodern design,” says Tamara Corm, Director of Pace gallery, who regularly exhibits du Pasquier’s work. “They were fluttering banners which visually represented the Memphis attitude whilst inspiring the sweeping design changes that were taking place during the early 1980s,” she continues. “Her patterns are now iconic to that period.”
If Memphis didn’t create the mood of the 1980s, defined by punk rock, big hair and conspicuous consumption, it was exactly in tune with it. It made no apologies for its brashness or its impracticality. Its furniture was often barely usable, let alone functional, giving it more in common with sculpture than industrial design. Michele De Lucchi’s “First Chair”—one of the most famous pieces to come out of Memphis—was notorious for tipping over when sat in, but practicality wasn’t really the point. Then and now, Nathalie du Pasquier’s carpets and textiles lent themselves well to actual use, making them stand out among Memphis’ eclectic output.
The Memphis group exhibited worldwide until 1988, when it officially disbanded. “I think the aim had been to break some things, and that goal was achieved in a year,” du Pasquier told Artnet in 2015. The initial goal of Memphis was to make affordable versions of their creations, but adapting them for mass-production proved an insurmountable challenge. “We would have liked to transform our ideas into products, I think, but of course that requires a huge amount of money that none of us had. So after a few years, all of us were doing our own things and Memphis was just one of them…,” recalled du Pasquier.
Nathalie du Pasquier shifted her focus to painting in 1987 and mostly abandoned Memphis’ bright primary colours in favour of more muted tones, but her work still reflects a fascination with odd geometries and asymmetrical compositions. She’s also occasionally called upon to create Memphis-inspired collections for fashion and interior design brands looking to capture the energy and iconoclasm of those early days. As copied and riffed-upon as her designs have been, there’s still no substitute for the real thing.