Memphis: Where Bob Dylan meets postmodern design

Bob Boilen of NPR's All Songs Considered blog checks in from vacation to comment on Bob Dylan's announcement last week that he is in negotiations with "a couple of car companies about being the voice of their GPS system":

Imagine asking your GPS to find the nearest Piggly Wiggly, and having it chime back, "Oh, mama, can this really be the end / to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again."

9_9Lg.jpg That got the wheels turning in my head. "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" is one of the few Dylan songs I actually like, and I heard the Grateful Dead play it at The Pyramid back in April 1995, their last tour before the death of Jerry Garcia. The song also inspired the name of a Milan-based design collective of the early 1980s that embodied the kitschy, garish styles of the MTV era:

Originally dubbed The New Design, the project was rechristened Memphis after the Bob Dylan lyric "Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)" stuck repeatedly at "Memphis Blues Again" on [Ettore] Sottsass' record player. "Sottsass said: 'Okay, let's call it Memphis," wrote Radice, "and everyone thought it was a great name: Blues, Tennessee, rock'n'roll, American suburbs, and then Egypt, the Pharoahs' capital, the holy city of the god, Ptah."

I was quick to make this connection between the Dylan song and the Memphis design group because earlier today I had run across an article about the movement on the Web site of the Canadian pubication Tandem. This article happens to give a decent definition of the Memphis style:

... which under the guidance of the veteran Sottsass, introduced bold colours and kitschy 1950s style graphics to Western consumer culture in the '80s.

Although Memphis wasn't a huge commercial success, its design influence could be felt during the decade in the popularity of, for instance, fluorescent and neon colours in consumer products. After the seriousness of modernism, Sottsass and company gave designers implicit permission to loosen up and have some fun with their work.

The New York Times had a nice article about Memphis design a couple of years ago, when it declared that "Memphis is back again."

So there you have it -- the nexus between Bob Dylan's 1966 Blonde on Blonde album and Karl Lagerfeld's '80s pad in Monaco -- is good old Memphis.

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