By Aileen Kwun | Portrait by Delfino Sisto Legnani
According to Laver’s Law—outlined by fashion historian James Laver in his 1937 book Taste and Fashion—the popularity of Nathalie Du Pasquier’s Memphis-era illustrations in recent years, 20 to 30 years after their creation, would classify the body of work somewhere between “ridiculous” and “amusing.” It’s a humorous assessment that Du Pasquier herself might find, well, ridiculous and amusing. Less debatable than the prophetic authority of Laver’s observations, however, is the visibility of Du Pasquier’s early work in recent years, which has experienced somewhat of a moment in the current zeitgeist of visual culture. Though it’s been decades since the Milan-based painter and sculptor has focused her creative energies on illustration and design, the world, it seems, is just catching up—or at least its younger generations are.
Early last year, Du Pasquier, 57, collaborated with clothing manufacturer American Apparel on a special collection of dresses, accessories, and unisex separates featuring patterns in the style of her years with the Memphis Group, of which she was a founding member. Just a few months prior, in the fall of 2013, Wrong For Hay, a collaborative offshoot between British designer Sebastian Wrong and Danish furniture company Hay, featured a collection of her textile patterns on a range of seating and cushion designs; also that year, she released a rug design with the French brand La Chance. Resurgence of the aesthetic’s popularity among younger generations might be attributed, in part, to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s 2012 show “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion: 1970–1990,” the first sweeping survey to focus on the movement’s far-reaching influences, Memphis included. The combination of events has built somewhat of a perfect storm for the release of Du Pasquier’s new book, Don’t Take These Drawings Seriously: 1981–1987, which comes out this month from PowerHouse Books.
“It doesn’t feel so strange, because I’m not a completely different person!” Du Pasquier says, on revisiting her earlier works. “I have been painting in the meantime, so my ideas about design haven’t really evolved. In fact, when many of these collaborations began, I positioned myself at the end of the ’80s, so it wasn’t really going back—it was just that my design work was continuing on.”
Bursting with discordant palettes, offbeat shapes, and ethno-infused patterns, Du Pasquier’s illustrations have long helped characterize the aesthetic of Memphis, even as her works would extend beyond the design collective’s notoriously short-lived existence. Founded in 1981 by a group of young and independent designers with Ettore Sottsass at the helm, in a span of seven years the group would be heralded as revolutionary, irreverent, and brilliant; among its members were Peter Shire, Alessandro Mendini, Paola Navone, and Matteo Thun, as well as international designers such as Shiro Kuramata, Hans Hollein, and Michael Graves. Heralded by Sottsass as “the New International Style,” the group’s rebellious experimentations across furniture, objects, textiles, drawings, and writings—powered by visual irony, pop culture, and the belief of design as a vehicle for cultural criticism—proved to successfully upset the applecart of Modernism’s austere reign, however momentary. At the height of its fame, Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld was among the group’s most enthusiastic collectors, filling his Monte Carlo apartment with their designs. Just like movements before it, however, Memphis too would dissolve.
Disillusioned by its steroidal rise to celebrity, Sottsass abandoned Memphis in 1985; its remaining members would disband by the decade’s end. Following an unfavorable spell in as the 1990s and early aughts (one reporter characterized it as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”), it’s clear the pendulum of popular taste has begun to swing back into the stylings of the Memphis Group.
“It was by chance I became involved in Memphis from the first year,” Du Pasquier says. “I was the girlfriend of George Sowden, who had been invited to take part. I was just beginning to design textiles and generously, even though he himself had designed many beautiful textiles, he proposed I work on surface designs for his pieces. It was a great opportunity, and I was very lucky when the group decided they would be produced for its first collection. That was, for me, the beginning of an important part of my life.”
As a high-school graduate, Du Pasquier lived abroad for a year in West Africa —a formative stay that she’s often said has taken the place of a university experience. “It was the first year I was away from family and obligations, the first year I was earning my own money; the first year I was an adult!” she says. “Of course, I was not one, but it was great to spend that year in a completely different culture. I started to understand a few things, and discovered many: about human beings, about nature, about life.” Living in Gabon, she worked odd jobs—as a server in a nightclub, and later, as a cashier at a restaurant, all while absorbing the colorful surroundings of the region that would continue to inspire her illustrations.
Among the widely varying designs produced by Memphis, Du Pasquier’s vibrant patterns brought pulsating dimensionality and color to textiles and asymmetric, plastic-laminate surfaces. Also commissioned by cult Italian youth label Fiorucci, as well as clients overseas in Japan, Du Pasquier’s imaginative illustrations spanned retrofuturistic concepts for jewelry, electronics, products, interiors, and entire cityscapes.
Now married to Sowden, Du Pasquier resides in Milan, where, working from her sunlit studio in an industrial building at the city’s center, she has reoriented her creative energies toward painting and construction (a term she prefers to “sculpture”) since the dissolution of Memphis. “My current projects are a mixture of things quickly springing from my brain and left ripening and finished in an intuition, sometimes in a very different context,” she says, of a practice she’s grown to love. “In this moment I tend to follow several things at the same time.”
Though the days of drawing and illustration are now behind her, she feels the differences between art and design have become increasingly blurred. “Today, artists tend to work like designers, producing multiples, having their works made by a third person. They need to find sponsors, money, to spend time in communication. And designers create things they tend to build themselves; nowadays, they’re like artists, or rock stars,” she says. “Who cares about the difference? With the Internet, nobody would know if you were a dog!”
Du Pasquier’s aesthetic has evolved and matured toward the meditative—still-life paintings with flattened planes of color and more muted tones—yet the mark of her earlier work remains subtly interwoven throughout, with skewed perspectives and abstracted shapes abandoning any heavy-handed notions of self-seriousness. Years later, she is the same person, after all. “To do the [PowerHouse] book, I have gone through many forgotten drawings, and it was enjoyable and interesting to see the amount of things I had been doing,” Du Pasquier says. “All these elements are like an alphabet, and I don’t need to find so many new ones. It is a question of how I compose them.”
You can buy the February issue here.