Memphis meets Africa

Bold colours, stacking and layering reminiscent of the 80s put in an appearance in Li Edelkoort’s “Totemism: Memphis meets Africa” exhibition at Expo.

Vibrant patterns, bold colours, neon tubes, wild animal skins, metal finishings, loud celluloid and glitter may be reminiscent of the 1980s but they are about to enjoy a revival party in South Africa.

These trends came together in the design world as the Memphis movement, started by the Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass in December 1981, and was characterised by a departure from Italian glamour and the industrial functionalism of the Modernists.

Memphis, which was named after the Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, was “everywhere and for everyone” Sottsass believed, though the movement was dismantled by 1988.

Now, some 25 years later, there’s a renewed interest in the colours, the stacking and the layering that was so iconic of this period in design, with renowned trend forecaster Li Edelkoort interpreting it within the South African context.

It all comes together in Totemism: Memphis Meets Africa, an exhibition of South African design conceptualised by Edelkoort on the invitation of Design Indaba and sponsored by Woolworths.

The exhibition is set to be a central feature at Design Indaba Expo in Cape Town this year, the result of an invitation to all South African designers to submit original creations that pay homage to the Memphis movement.

“South African style is set to gain inspiration from new ideas working with colour, craft and pattern, liberating itself in pretty much the same way that the Memphis Design Movement did 30 years ago,” explains Edelkoort. “Working on my trend forecasts, it suddenly became very clear to me that there is a kinship between Memphis and South African creativity, between shantytown colours and Italian kitchen laminates from that period.”

From an overwhelming selection of entries from a very diverse range of South African designers, Edelkoort settled on the work of 53 designers, including some heavy-hitters like Porky Hefer, Ardmore Ceramics, Ronel Jordaan, Dokter and Misses, David West and Liam Mooney.

Equally exciting is work by up-and-coming designers such as Siyanda Mbele, Isabeau Joubert, Werner Venter and Warno Rüde that is also included in the exhibit.

“The use of tactile matter, vibrant pattern, wild animal skins, fringes and finishes, lightbulbs and neons, all indicate that we can expect an eighties-inspired revival of some magnitude. I believe it is the stacking and layering of colour and materials that deliver a totemic quality to designs,” says Edelkoort.

For those not overly familiar with the Memphis style, Ettore Sottsass’s Carlton Cabinet will be instantly recognisable, having become iconic of the movement. Similarly, Alessandro Mendini’s vases are totemic constructions with an African echo. Speaking of the vases, Edelkoort says “with this connection in mind, I have selected some of South Africa's newest and most totemic works, celebrating uniqueness and ingenuity with flair because the world is ready to look to Africa to be inspired!”