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Do design doctrines such as Bauhaus and Memphis still exist today?

Pia Seidel
Pia Seidel
Zurich, on 28.01.2022
Pictures: Pia Seidel
Translation: Katherine Martin

In the 20th century, product design followed clear leitmotifs. These days, they’re pretty much absent, appearing only as references. So what’s actually guiding the creative minds of the 21st century?

Be it Art Nouveau, International Style or Art Deco, the 20th century was once dominated by collectives, which had clear opinions and followed uniform design principles. Nowadays, no one seems to be dictating what «good design» is. At least, not like back then.

I want to know what drives artists, interior designers and creatives today, and who or what inspires them. To do this, I’ll start by unravelling some design history. After all, if you want to understand the designs of up-and-coming talent, you’ve got to know which movements are inspiring them.

Minimalism vs. Maximalism

Two of the most important and diverse design movements were «The Bauhaus» and «Memphis». While the Bauhaus movement stood for functionalist, no-frills design, the Italian collective believed that decor alone served a justified purpose in design.

Starting in the 1920s, the pioneers of Bauhaus championed architect Louis Sullivan’s adage «form follows function». Everyone from Walter Gropius to Ludwig Mies rallied behind the idea that aesthetics should be determined by function; an example of this being the Wassily Chair by designer and architect Marcel Breuer. Made of welded steel tubes and leather slings, it’s completely free of colour, embellishments and stitching. Reduced to the bare essentials.

The «Tahiti» table lamp by Italian designer and architect Ettore Sottsass.
The «Tahiti» table lamp by Italian designer and architect Ettore Sottsass.

Forty years later, the Milanese group «Memphis» reacted with a confetti-canon-bang of riotous colour. The movement rebelled against the functionalist «good taste» that prevailed in the seventies. Memphis co-founder Ettore Sottsass, for example, gave his toy-like table lamp Tahiti everything possible: a misleading name, bright colours, different materials, a slant, the silhouette of a duck and a black-and-white patterned laminate base. The pattern consists of a «field of black squiggles» and, according to Sottsass, was inspired by a Buddhist temple in Madurai, India. What this is supposed to have to do with Tahiti is still unclear.

Memphis member and designer Martine Bedin took a hedgehog-on-wheels for a walk. Having said that, the semicircular lamp Super doesn’t just move on wheels: with its string of lightbulbs, it even lights up like a ferris wheel too. Quirky, playful and almost unusable – that’s what Memphis designs were.

A lamp on two wheels: «Super» by designer Martine Bedin.
A lamp on two wheels: «Super» by designer Martine Bedin.

Memphis has since become a company, which determines how the original designs are presented today. I recently saw a selection of their pieces during the Geneva Design Days. They weren’t my cup of tea, but I knew exactly which design principles had informed them. When it came to the works of contemporary designers, however, I hadn’t the faintest idea. Without reading up and asking questions, you don’t get far with them.

The Sottsass «Diva» mirror: the circles are for decorative purposes only.
The Sottsass «Diva» mirror: the circles are for decorative purposes only.
The laminate will wear away over time.
The laminate will wear away over time.

The apparent lack of a new design doctrine nowadays is obvious when you look at design labels – right now, everybody’s fond of referencing the Memphis glory days. The look of the Sottsass mirror lamp Ultrafragola, for example, has been taken up by the young designer Gustav Westmann. The original has a wavy outline, and lights up in pink. When it’s off, the frame goes white. Gustav’s version, named Curvy Mirror is also wavy, and also has a pink frame. In an interview with the German online magazine Beige, the designer credited the viral success of his pink wave mirror to Swedish stylist Hanna MW, who skilfully orchestrated its emergence on social media in 2020. The only thing he didn’t mention was the source of his inspiration.

Kartell’s 2015 «Pilastro» stool is inspired by Ettore Sottsass.
Kartell’s 2015 «Pilastro» stool is inspired by Ettore Sottsass.
Exhibition: Design Days Geneva.

Established brands, on the other hand, openly admit to pilfering from Memphis. Alessi and Kartell even named their lively collections after Sottsass. If we’re being harsh, we could follow the example of German Architectural Digest columnist Ulrich Clewing and call them «Copycats flickering en masse across the internet like fireflies on a May night.» What Clewing is ignoring is this: it’s difficult to reinvent the wheel. So is the new design doctrine just about referencing others?

Kartell Pilastro Stool Ettore Sottsass Edition

Kartell Pilastro Stool Ettore Sottsass Edition

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Kartell Trix lounger Ettore Sottsass Edition

Kartell Trix lounger Ettore Sottsass Edition

Form follows what?

Architect and designer Matteo Thun, who himself was part of the Milan collective, once told the magazine Wallpaper that Memphis was perhaps «the last strong design movement.» He believes that dogma is no longer required in today’s world – and I agree with him. References in product design are just a logical result of that. Still, I wonder what makes the creative minds of today tick. Why do some reference modernism and others postmodernism? Why are they always on the hunt for better design solutions when all that seems to exist already?

In my new series, I’ll explore these questions. First up, I’ll be talking to Astrid Haury, the trend researcher, futurologist and founder of the upcycling platform Trash2Treasure. In our conversation, she’ll tell me what she wants to enrich our world with right now. Follow me as an author so you don’t miss the next instalment.

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Pia Seidel

«There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. I believe in the latter.»
– Albert Einstein


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