From Mari to Memphis: the role of prototypes in Italian radical and Postmodern design

Rossi, Catharine (2013) From Mari to Memphis: the role of prototypes in Italian radical and Postmodern design. In: Valentine, Louise, (ed.) Prototype: design and craft in the 21st Century. London, U.K. : Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9780857856821


In September 1981 Memphis unveiled its first collection at the annual Milan furniture fair. The decorated plastic laminate surfaces and bright clashing colours were not only an iconoclastic attack on Italian design’s reputation for good taste but also introduced an identifiable postmodernist aesthetic to be much-imitated throughout the 1980s. However, the condition of these well-known objects as one-off, hand-crafted prototypes has been totally overlooked, and yet was key, speaking of their provisionality and marginality, and a continuing reliance on Italy’s wealth of artisanal workshops as an alternative to mainstream industry. Memphis was not the first time prototypes had played a leading role in the critical turn in post-war Italian design. The self-declared Marxist Enzo Mari had used prototypes in his early 1970s criticism of the alienating nature of mass production and consumption; curating the 1981 Where is the Artisan? exhibition, Mari included prototypes as one of the primary manifestations of craft in Italy’s post-industrial landscape. While prototypes in multiple materials were included in the Exhibition, all the examples discussed here are low-tech wooden objects that explored the expressive, rather than technical qualities of objects, as in Michele de Lucchi’s prototypes for domestic appliance manufacturer Girmi from 1980. Unlike Memphis, de Lucchi’s prototypes never went into production, seen as too experimental for the design marketplace. By examining the multiple engagement with prototypes in 1970s and 1980s, this chapter aims to re-consider Italian design practice in this period, and offers an opportunity to analyse the marginalized role of craft practice in Italy’s post-war design history.

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