Forty years ago, on 18 September 1981, the design and architecture collective the Memphis Group held its first exhibition in Milan. The group’s bright decorative objects and flair for plastic laminate would come to dominate the European design scene over the next several years, until the group’s disbanding in 1987.
One of the most notable objects in this first exhibition was Umeda Masanori’s Tawaraya, a boxing ring-like structure that would become the site of one of the Memphis Group’s most quintessential portraits. Ikko Yokoyama, M+'s Lead Curator of Design and Architecture, shares the origins of Tawaraya and its layers of cultural associations, drawing on her past conversations with Umeda and his original sketches in the M+ Collections.
An Idea Is Born
The story of one of the most iconic photos of the Memphis Group starts with Japanese designer Umeda Masanori.
Born in Japan in 1941, Umeda moved to Milan in 1967 and worked with Italian designer Ettore Sottsass at the manufacturer Olivetti for almost ten years. He returned to Tokyo in 1979.
In 1980, Umeda received a letter from Sottsass inviting him to join a group exhibition, which was to be the launch of a provocative new design movement: the Memphis Group. Sottsass—who had participated in an earlier experimental design movement in Italy—wrote that this new movement would emphasise what he called a ‘new international style’. The letter included a list of other participating designers, such as Michael Graves and Andrea Branzi, and example sketches drawn in Sottsass’ signature style: geometric, colourful, with laminate surfaces.
While Umeda didn’t fully understand what ‘new international style’ meant, he immediately intuited from the sketches what Sottsass was aiming for and began developing his response. He interpreted ‘new international’ to mean a blend of Sottsass’ colourful surfaces with traditional Japanese crafts and architectural systems—a combination that he hoped would prove entirely unique.
The result was a reconfigurable space ambiguous in function, housed in a small boxing ring covered with tatami mats. Room sizes in Japanese housing are often defined according to how many tatami mats fit inside. Umeda’s structure fit four and a half tatami mats—equivalent to the standard minimum flat size in Japan—lending the work its original title, Furniture 4½. Umeda wasn’t familiar with any similar modular systems in Europe and wanted to use this piece to convey the rationality and flexibility of tatami-based design for a European audience. The combination of this traditional material with the cheap laminate border was intended to create hybridity with Sottsass’ style.
Umeda sent four sketches to Sottsass in response to the invitation. These reflect four iterations that the reconfigurable space could be transformed into, each serving a different purpose.
Configuration One: Conversation and Entertainment
The first iteration, seen above, was intended to be a space for conversation and entertainment. Umeda was inspired by the spirited debates that he would see in Italy’s public squares. The Memphis Group was a collective of intellectual designers and architects, so he wanted to create a space for them to relax, drink, and have stimulating discussions. He included four words around the sides of the sketch in both Italian and Japanese that embody these qualities: festivity, dialogue, intellect, fun.
Configuration Two: Rites and Celebrations
This second iteration is about rites and celebration. Umeda emphasised how this room could be changed to suit different festivities with four words: joy, ceremony, season, festival.
In a separate sketch, he wrote labels indicating which festivals could be celebrated in the space. A set of dolls in front of a folding screen is labelled ‘3 March, Children’s Festival (Female)’ in Italian. This refers to the Hinamatsuri, or Girls’ Day, during which ornamental dolls are displayed on platforms. The arrow labelled ‘5 May, Children’s Festival (Male)’ points to a row of carp-shaped windsocks, traditionally flown during Kodomo no Hi, or Boys’ Day, in Japan. The final arrow, labelled ‘7 July “Tanabata”’, points to a bamboo wishing tree used during Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival.
Configuration Three: Death and Ritual
This third iteration is designed for a ceremony that is part of every person’s life: a funeral scene. This version features an altar for mourning and worshipping against a black and white curtain. Again, the sketch is surrounded by four keywords: emptiness, heaven, life, sorrow.
Configuration Four: Love and Dreams
The final iteration is a sensual space: a bedroom with a futon. The designers in the Memphis Group were young, and Umeda, inspired by the relatively open sexuality of 1960s–1970s Italy, wanted to create a rich space even for love and dreams. This sketch is labelled: night, love, heart, dreams.
Some erotic cultural references are embedded in the size and conception of the work itself. The four-and-a-half tatami mat room had been evoked, for example, in Nagai Kafū’s famous 1917 short story The Inside Lining of the Four-and-a-Half Mat Room—a tale so explicit that when a Japanese culture magazine republished it in 1972, the editor-in-chief was arrested. The work’s original title, Furniture 4 ½, also alludes to Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 ½ and the erotic fantasies of its protagonist.
Tawaraya at Exhibition
Ultimately, Umeda’s original title didn’t stick. For the exhibition, Sottsass renamed every object after hotels from different parts of the world. Tawaraya was named after a high-end Kyoto ryokan—a traditional Japanese inn with tatami-matted rooms—where Sottsass had stayed before. Umeda found this amusing because for him, the work represented the simplest, cheapest type of room or a public square that belongs to everyone. Like the Memphis Group, he was interested in dismantling the modernist spell that had taken hold of design.
For Sottsass, it didn’t matter. The associations didn't have to make sense; they were meant to play with and open up the system of design.
The exhibition was a big success—almost 2,000 people attended the opening. But what Umeda remembers most from the event was the smell of the tatami mats. The mats had been fabricated by craftsmen in Italy according to instructions drawn by a Japanese mat-maker. Freshly made tatami mats have an intense, grassy smell that hints at starting anew. This smell, which many Italians had never encountered, permeated the exhibition.
Umeda and Kuramata Shiro were two of three Japanese designers participating in the exhibition (alongside architect Isozaki Arata), and Umeda later modestly positioned their roles using a theatre analogy: if Sottsass and the Italian designers were the stars, Umeda and Kuramata were the jesters, adding some exotic spice but ultimately on the sidelines. However, the inclusion of Japanese designers, together with French, Spanish, British, and American designers, helped fulfil the Memphis Group’s aspirations of an ‘international’ style.
Thirty-five years later, at a Memphis Group exhibition in Seoul, Umeda was positively surprised by the crowds of enthusiastic people born long after the group was formed. He had always been a bit ironic about the Memphis style and felt that of all the hundreds of objects and interiors he designed during his career, only Tawaraya and his flower-shaped, velvet chair Getsuen were worthwhile. But seeing young people from Asia with no previous knowledge of the Memphis Group enjoying the exhibition made Umeda feel that maybe he did contribute something to design after all.
The Memphis Group was one of the most energetic moments in postmodern design history. The fearless forms, individual expressions, reinterpretation of histories, and referential nature of postmodernism are still alive in many ways. This is especially true in Asia, where sociocultural development, design, architecture, and even visual art are often influenced by imported cultures, amalgamated and reinterpreted through local lenses, then exported to the world. Asia is a hub of exchange.
I am interested in this post-war Asian network of influences in design and architecture, as well as philosophies and methods of creating that can inform our current lives. Postmodernist design has been criticised as being too commercial, egoistic, and superficial. This, however, is where the Memphis Group can give us a great deal of insight. They introduced a new way of imagining that went beyond ideologies and was unafraid of the past. Even today, their approach can be seen as highly invigorating, critical of existing standards, and welcoming of diverse perspectives for cultural production.
As told to Ellen Oredsson (Editor, Web Content). The above interview has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.
Unless otherwise credited, all images by Umeda Masanori from Sketches, colour tests, technical drafts, and published material, Tawaraya, 1981. M+, Hong Kong. © Masanori Umeda. Pictured in image at top of post: Michele de Lucchi, Marco Zanini, George Sauden, Martine Bedin, Nathalie du Pasquier, Matteo Thun, Aldo Cibic, and Andrea Branzi. Ettore Sottsass is on the top right—the man with the mustache.
Ikko Yokoyama is Lead Curator, Design and Architecture at M+.