Guest post by Thom Moran
Possibly the most visually striking showroom and collection at NEOCON this year is Interface FLOR's "Memphis Under Foot." Beyond the boldly patterned carpets, the showroom featured a whimsical romper-room like installation, an augmented reality game based on said romper room, boldly patterned wallpapers, and a wall of stacked objects painted white including televisions playing 80's inspired videos like La Roux's "Bullet Proof." All of this added up to a brightly-colored overload of eighties-ness that was successful in creating a totalizing atmosphere.
Borrowing heavily from the now notorious early eighties Italian design collaborative Memphis, the company's collection centers around "Memphis inspired" carpet tile systems designed by David Oakey. Interface's and Oakey's ambitions for the collection is to lighten the mood a little. As the American economy (hopefully) pulls out of this latest economic downturn, the idea is that design can be a source of joy and fun, instead of dour seriousness. Hence the return to the irreverence and levity of the Memphis group's iconic and instantly recognizable style.
The elephant in the room, however, is the elephant down the hall. Another of Interface's initiatives for this year was to bring artist Andries Botha of the Human Elephant Foundation and his life size elephant sculpture made entirely of recycled tires called "Nomkhubulwane" to NEOCON. This move was meant to underscore Interface's commitment to sustainability and to highlight their campaign, called "mission zero," to have no impact on the environment by 2020. What was peculiar is that the sculpture was outside in front of the merchandise mart and all of the information about the elephant campaign was not in the showroom, but down the hall. This physical separation of the "fun" design of Memphis from the "serious" problem of the environment was emblematic of a deeper ambivalence running through the show.For starters, Memphis was about more than providing a "fun" counterpoint to the "grays and beiges" of the late seventies. Implicit in the work of Memphis was not just an exhaustion with style, but a sophisticated, almost radical critique of society and culture in general. For example, a video that Interface posted on their blog describes Memphis pattern designs as "either geometric or organics inspired by nature." In reality, these patterns were graphic representations of expensive, "authentic" materials that had become the standard of quality in furniture design. By turning these materials into patterns that could be applied to plastic laminate, a material still held in low regard, Memphis was making a statement about how perceived opulence had become the standard of quality in design over creativity, invention or joy.
I am not sure how the Memphis designers would have felt about becoming a line of carpet tile patterns. It seems like none of the original Memphis designers were involved although during my brief visit to the showroom I heard the name "Etorre Sotsass" bandied about quite frequently. It feels a little disingenuous, like Interface is using Memphis as nothing more than a slick, seductive marketing ploy. Now, I should say that I love Memphis and the values they embody, and I also admire Interface for the responsible, high quality products they have made available to designers. I think this friction goes beyond Interface and actually says something about the larger problems that design faces today: trying to reconcile the creative ambitions of designers with the very real problem of environmental decline. In that way the showroom was thoroughly thought provoking.