The thing that was most impactful for me when I started out in industrial design was the Memphis design movement. This was a group of Italian architects who formed a design collective and started to create objects. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’ve since learned that the name was inspired by a Bob Dylan song.
When I was growing up, I loved making art. I really loved doing sculpture. But by the time I got to my junior year in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I didn’t want to suffer for my art. That’s what the head of my high school art department told us what it took: “Suffer for your art.” And that was just not the life I envisioned for myself. Like a lot of people, until I started trying to choose my college and career path, I didn’t even know that industrial design existed. I had never thought about how the objects in our world, cars, phones and the like, came to be. I never considered that there were people whose jobs were deciding how these things should look. I’d explored architecture a bit, but I didn’t love it enough. So I figured design was the way to go.
The impact of the Memphis design movement was very influential during its time and I don’t even know if there’s an equivalent anymore. I guess I was in my junior year at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit when it started to have a big influence on me personally. I got a book on the Memphis group that was filled with beautiful photographs of all these amazing objects designed by its members. Back then, my classmates and I lusted after that stuff. We imagined someday being able to afford it. I moved into this building that was down the street from school, in part because the penthouse was a store that sold Memphis furniture and objects. My friends and I would periodically go up there to “ooh” and “ah.”
To me, the single biggest hallmark of the Memphis school was the way things looked assembled from parts. The fact that nothing looked like a smooth homogenous shape, like a modern aerodynamic car for example. Everything was assembled, in most cases from basic geometric shapes. There was nothing like this at the time. It was incredibly unique. Nobody else was doing anything remotely similar. And it was hugely influential in forming my aesthetic. At that stage in my development as a designer, nothing was established. Some of the ideas and concepts of the Memphis designers became parts of the palette I was using, which I could then use to create wherever my vision might take me.
In the 1980s, it influenced the look of everything from tea kettles to TV shows. But inevitably, Memphis went out of style. It started to seem fluffy, like it was just design for design’s sake. By then, however it had somehow opened something inside me. It showed me that there were signature sensibilities in this field, that there was an aspect of expressing creativity and individuality that wasn’t immediately apparent to me when I first saw industrial design as a career. It’s funny, I don’t think about it much anymore, but something recently reminded me that it still unconsciously influences the way I think about design: I often doodle absent-mindedly when I’m talking on the phone. After I hang up, I’ll look at what I’ve drawn, and it’s done in the Memphis style.