Kinship in design is often viewed as simply a matter of showing relations, both formally and historically, between objects that share color, pattern, and local craft strategies. Totemism, however, often takes a "system of belief" one step further by introducing supernatural connections and avant-garde expressions that blend the folkloric and iconic in stirring ways. In this spirit, we reached out to Li Edelkoort, world-renowned trend forecaster, to describe some of the layered creations in her artfully curated exhibit,'TOTEMISM: Memphis meets Africa' at this past weekend's Design Indaba Expo.
The Memphis movement burst onto the scene in 1981 when its designers made waves at the Milan Furniture Fair with irreverently bold, Pop-style designs that challenged Modernist notions of good taste and functionality. Created as a language that challenged the aesthetic of clean lines, the market appeal of the understated, and the usefulness of design coherence, Memphis rippled out to ceramics, glassware, furniture, interior design, and urban architecture, specifically building facades. The movement embraced the unexpected in design as well as the ubiquitous in life.
For Design Indaba, Edelkoort channeled a bit of Italian master Ettore Sotsass who declared that "Memphis is everywhere and for everyone." Edelkoort highlighted that Sottsass often referred to the movement itself as being "like a hard drug"—a phenomena that one could not take too much of. It remains to be seen what long term impact an overdose of Memphis elements, like colorfully patterned laminates, printed glass surfaces, loud celluloid, and sculptural neon tubes will have on design. Thirty years on, one can only be reminded of Memphis's unprecedented energy when discovering South Africa's design talent.
"Since 1994, young South African designers and decorators set out to create an African style using contemporary elements mixed with folkloric and iconic aspects such as spears, zebra, wooden masks, and stools. Bars, restaurants, and early boutique hotels invented this first funky South African design language. However, that movement was quickly saturated and the design community turned to craft and textiles instead. These trends developed in a great outpour of rustic and organic style, including architecture, design and food, celebrating the well-being of South African life." –Li Edeelkoort
The TOTEMISM exhibition highlighted a spectrum of local South African designers and artisans. Particular attention was paid to regional textile patterns, as well as the palettes of "shantytown colors." The discordant clash of Memphis style kitchen laminates and exaggerated teapots came to life once again in ways that seem de rigueur in a community used to resourceful improvisation and the re-invention of simple merchandise. The emblematic might be concealed in the language of the everyday or in irreverent combinations that evoke magical realism. This is why South African makers are so unselfconsciously avant-garde.
The Hybrid Totem by Nawaaz celebrates the luxe handcraft of South Africa married with a totemic stacking system reminiscent of The Carleton Cabinet by Memphis designer Ettore Sotsass, as well as John Male's stacked glass lights recycled from eBay (a.k.a. the Rebay project) during London Design Week in September 2012.
“The process of inviting designers to submit works through the Internet has led to many new and exciting discoveries. The exhibition at Design Indaba Expo included approximately seventy creations, including the hybrid totems of Nawaaz, original graphics by Kristen Morkel, coloured vases by Clementina van der Walt, and a curious still life landscape by Anja de Klerk.” -Li Edeelkoort
Designs by South African ceramicist Clementina van der Walt demonstrate objects with soul. Edeelkoort made a point of including both "rich and poor" materials in the designs selected for TOTEMISM. On some level, this differentiates the African version of Memphis from the original movement due to the incorporation of natural and sustainable materials, including local fiber, vegetation, as well as recycled aluminum and metals that are discarded and then find new life. This reference to South African 'potjie culture' (the region's utilitarian cast-iron cooking pot) is emblematic of the blending of the many influences and motifs that make up African style.
"Foreign visitors were amazed by the sophistication and taste demonstrated by local designers even with simple merchandise. The booth structure of Totemism represented the feel of a shantytown stand, which reinforced its creative and improvised character; visitors found the idea refreshing in times of economic duress.The exhibition/project was much talked about." –Li Edeelkoort's team at Design Indaba
'TOTEMISM: Memphis meets Africa' was curated by Lidewij Edelkoort and produced with the support of Woolworths, Interactive Africa, and Design Indaba Expo. The event took place in Cape Town from March 1–3, 2013. More information is available at Design Indaba Expo.