When the Memphis group caused a riot with colorful laminate furniture and rebellious design in Milan at the beginning of the 1980s, it was not only due to the garish and ambiguous objects (shelves didn’t look like shelves and lamps didn’t look like lamps), but also due to the attitude of the protagonists: Others worked under the leadership of the architect and designer Ettore Sottsass as well, including Michele De Lucchi, Andrea Branzi and Hans Hollein. Their small series products contradicted the requirements for manufacturability and profitability. The variety of forms was jarring and the color palette was unrestrained. And the name of the group was allegedly based on a convivial meeting of the group, where they heard Bob Dylan’s song “Memphis Blues”.
But at the same time it also references (in a very postmodern way) the mysticism of ancient Egypt. The celebration of shapes and colors didn’t last very long because the sassy designs were soon copied everywhere and they were also not compatible enough with regards to the requirements of the industry in terms of low-cost manufacturing. The Ashoka table lamp from 1981 was one of the masterpieces of Sottsass, but the three-dimensional sketch design, which reminded of a horned face, was not designed to be produced in large quantities. One of the sponsors of the group was Ernesto Gismondi, the founder of Artemide. He suggested to Sottsass to design objects for his lighting company that could still be influenced by the Memphis group and the emerging postmodern, but should at the same time be more adaptable to the requirements of the industry.
The ambiguous post-modern as an intellectual and aesthetic environment
The era, which was at a later time referred to as postmodernism, is very complex and was often misunderstood, as well as the architectural and design products that were collectively referred to under this term. Its origin lies in literature (the novel “Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco should not be left unmentioned with regards to its influence), but the most attention catching parts – even though not all that convincing at times – can be found in architecture and design. The guiding principal is plurality and is also reflected in “Contemporaneousness of the Non-Contemporaneous” (W. Welsch), i.e. a narrative dealing with subjects from three thousand years of architectural history. The superficial colorfulness and arbitrariness of many generic projects, which are responsible for the ambivalent reactions of the public, need to be differentiated from this.
The two-meter-tall “Callimaco”
The floor lamp Callimaco from 1982 may serve as an exemplary illustration of postmodernism with regards to lighting design. Sottsass designed the two-meter-tall floor lamp with simple geometric elements: A round metal pipe seems to impale the tips of two cones – the larger grey cone serves as a foot, while the smaller red cone opens upwards. Here is, not visible for the viewer, the place of the light bulb and it floods the ceiling with its light.
The lamp has an unobtrusive dimmer, which – slightly irritating – consists of a chrome-plated handle, which is reminiscent of a kitchen drawer and can be used to get a hold of the lamp. The formal vocabulary is almost classically simple (only two geometric base forms are combined: the cone and the cylinder), but the color and above all the obvious and not expected handle lead to an ironic refraction. Sotsass used ambiguous post-modern collage techniques for the desk lamp Pausania (1982) as well, by setting two chrome pillars on a tiered pedestal, carrying a layered roof that is reminiscent of a 1920s bus stop. This interpretation may not be universal, but it shows exemplary that compelling postmodern designs are intelligent and can be distinguished by unobtrusive ambiguity.