Abstraction in Mathematics and Design: or How the Abstract Sheds Light on Our Love and Hatred for Memphis and Eames

May 2015 - Research Essay

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To the person who meets Memphis design for the first time, it might all seem like a frivolous fad or the fever dream of a tasteless 80’s kid. But the formulation of Memphis design and the deduction of various consequences of its distinct form language has, over the years, proved to be anything but a fad. Memphis aesthetic and its attitude heavily influenced MTV in the late 80’s and Nickelodeon cartoons in the 90’s, thus imbedding its panache on the up-and-coming “Millennial” generation (of which I am a part).


Memphis design faded away shortly after Ettore Sottsass’ infamous group disbanded in 1987. However, its influences by no means disappeared but rather layered them selves on top of previously established design aesthetics and principles. Before Memphis, Eames-era aesthetic ruled design between 1945 and 1980. This era of design was distinguished by its subtlety, elegances, and livable intentions. Charles and Ray Eames created a new standard for design, laying their foundations within the elegance of their Lounge Chair and Ottoman, Fiberglass Arm Chair, and Storage Unit 200. With these iconic forms they unintentionally created axioms within design that stand the test of time because that is, largely, what an axiom must do: capture meaningful and correct patterns that persist.


Consumers and designers were rejecting the design axioms established by the Eames and looking to the experimental out of curiosity. Memphis furniture is much like abstract art; challenging, unexpected, and at times for nothing but its own sake. I must clarify that this shift from Eames to Memphis is not exclusive; on the contrary, Eames and Memphis can work together in a well-curated space. I propose that the creation of Memphis was born out of the same logic that created abstraction in mathematics; “extracting the underlying essence of a mathematical concept, removing any dependence on real world objects with which it might originally have been connected, and generalizing it so that it has wider applications or matching among other abstract descriptions of equivalent phenomena” (219).


Memphis design, like abstract mathematics, has no dependence on real world design application set forth by Eames era thinking. Memphis is wrought with impractical shapes, fixtures, and methods that do not embrace the axiom of subtlety, elegances, and livable intentions. On the contrary, Memphis denies these principles entirely embracing instead the noisy, contrasting, and chaotic. Axioms are much like “the foundations of a building. No matter how carefully the [designer] constructs the walls and the rest of the structure, if the foundations are unsound, the entire structure may collapse” (75).  Memphis, built upon chaos and contrast, is like abstract mathematics in the nineteenth century. Axioms were piled on top of axioms creating huge, complex systems of mathematical thinking appreciated by only a small number of mathematicians. Similar to Memphis, a layering of frustration and boredom on top of Eames era thinking created a world of design largely indigestible for consumers, and thus as soon as it started in 1981, it faded away in 1987, only to return now in the mid 2010’s.


Memphis is making a come back. Founding member of the Memphis Group, Nathalie du Pasquier, recently designed a line of clothing for American Apparel that, as she describes, puts the Memphis aesthetic, “in motion again”  (Gizmodo). New York Design week saw the reemergence of Memphis in furniture design with the opening of Sight Unseen’s Offsite show.  And the popular apparel store Print All Over Me has begun emphasizing a new Memphis inspired aesthetic. This reemergence calls into question whether or not a lack of appreciation will compound as the aesthetic evolves similarly to the way abstract mathematics did. In the field of mathematics, abstractions were piled on abstractions creating systems that many mathematicians found hard to appreciate.


Appreciation for any one design aesthetic is a fascinating phenomenon to consider; why do we as humans have preferences for one aesthetic over another? Malcolm Gladwell answers this question in his TED Talk “Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce” where he states that there is no hierarchy of quality, meaning that there is no one perfect aesthetic, or ranking of aesthetics, but rather humans require a diversity of aesthetics.  There is no one perfect way, so we must have a diversity of ways. Memphis bases its design principles, or axioms, on noisy, contrasting, and chaotic. Eames era bases its design principles, or axioms, on subtlety, elegances, and livable intentions. Other design movements exist to serve the diverse needs of humanity, just as different types of mathematics serve different purposes in our lives. The search for universal truths in both mathematics and design has given way to the study of human variability and diversity. By creating a dichotomy of choices within both mathematics and design, we shed light on what could create total harmony and understanding of high quality work.




Bertrand Russell, in The Principles of Mathematics Volume 1 (pg 219), refers to "the principle of abstraction".


Keith Devlin, in The Language of Mathematics: Making the Invisible Visible (pg 75), refers to “The power of abstraction”.


Nathalie du Pasquier, in “Why a Once-Hated 1980s Design Movement is Making a Comeback” on Gizmodo (10/7/2014) http://gizmodo.com/why-a-once-hated-1980s-design-movement-is-making-a-come-1602111413




Malcolm Gladwell, in “Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce” on TED (2/2004) http://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce?language=en

Blake Greene, 2016