TOTEMISM: Memphis meets Africa

A feature on Trend Tablet by Lidewij Edelkoort

Part of the Project

There seems to be a kinship between Memphis ideas and South African style, between shantytown colours and Italian kitchen laminates from that period. The use of tactile matter, coloured patterns, wild animal skins, fringes and finishes, lightbulbs and neons are all reason to believe that we can expect a Memphis-inspired revival of inspiring magnitude.

A Memphis revival reflects a taste for bolder colours and is already influencing the most avant garde designers who create citations irreverently. The Italian master Ettore Sottsass would have agreed: Memphis, he said, “is everywhere and for everyone”. Yet he also is known for saying that Memphis was “like a hard drug” and therefore one couldn’t take too much of it!

The Memphis designers set themselves free with colourful and patterned laminates, historical form, wild animal materials, printed glass, loud celluloid, neon tubes and metal plates finished with spangles and glitter. The movement coincided with the reign of disco dancing and pop icons like Grace Jones, who dressed and moved like Memphis in loud colour-blocked outfits – already making a major comeback in fashion today!

Since 1994, young South African designers and decorators set out to create an African style using contemporary elements mixed with folkloric and iconic aspects such as spears, zebra, wooden masks and stools. Bars, restaurants and early boutique hotels invented this first funky South African design language.

However that movement was quickly saturated and the design community turned to craft and textiles instead. These trends developed in a great outpour of rustic and organic style, including architecture, design and food, celebrating the well-being of South African life. 

Now these long-lasting trends are gaining inspiration from fresh ideas working with colour, craft and pattern, liberating themselves in pretty much the same way that Memphis design movement first did in the 1980’s. Yet what makes this neo-Memphis movement so African in feeling? The stacking and layering of colour and materials deliver a totemic quality to designs. As these objects illustrate, it’s time to stack, store, build and construct new African totems, thus creating icons that are at the forefront of design. The world is looking to Africa to be inspired!
 Like slaves to the rhythm!


Lidewij Edelkoort

'Totemism: Memphis meets Africa' is an exhibition that will be on show at Design Indaba Expo in Cape Town, March 1-3, 2013 (curated by Lidewij Edelkoort & produced with the support of Woolworths, Interactive Africa & Design Indaba Expo)


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