Memphis sent shock waves through the design world when it introduced its first collection in 1981. With brightly colored pieces covered in gaudy geometric and animal-print patterns, the Milanese collective issued a challenge to modernism’s good taste and “form follows function” maxim. Instead, under Ettore Sottsass’s leadership, it embraced the spirit of its day: excess, Pop imagery, and rampant consumerism. And rather than using costly materials, the designers covered their furniture in inexpensive plastic laminate—elevating a surface commonly used on cheap countertops and in 1950s diners to the level of high design worthy of inclusion in museum collections around the world.
Decades later, some of Memphis’s laminate patterns still sell well today. That’s good news for Abet Laminati, which originally produced and continues to make them—right? Not exactly, says Tony Damiano, the company’s president. Abet, along with the silk-screening plant that manufactures the Memphis line, is dying to discontinue the dated patterns to make room for new products. But the collection has endured for one compelling reason: it continues to make money in the United States and Australia. “The Italians explain it by saying that Americans have very little culture and the Australians are all prisoners,” Damiano says. Indeed, the retro collection has been popular not among Memphis aficionados but with designers of kitschy nightclubs such as B.B. King’s and fast-food chains like the now defunct Macheezmo Mouse, in Portland, Oregon.
Abet has held on to the line long enough to witness a renewed interest in Sottsass, who died in 2008, and his Memphis group. Over the last few years, several institutions, including the Design Museum, in London, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, have staged major exhibitions of his work. All of which is ironic, given the designer’s own philosophy: “I don’t understand why enduring design is better than disappearing design,” he once said. Abet Laminati couldn’t agree more.