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A Love Letter To Memphis: The Room Mate Hotel Giulia by Patricia Urquiola

Patricia Urquiola gets modern with Ettore Sottsass’ 1980s rigor in the design of her latest project, The Room Mate Hotel Giulia in Milan.

In my opinion, Memphis gets way more flack than it deserves. I totally get that it’s polarizing – in fact someone once told me they thought of it as the “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price toys”. Ouch. Haters gonna hate, I guess.

But whether you’re a fan or not, you can’t deny that Memphis is starting to seep through into our projects again, likely as some kind of rebellion against the prolific floor-to-ceiling blonde timber movement. And I for one whole-heartedly support the return of the design industry’s black sheep!

Though it hasn’t made a full comeback in all its original glory, designers the world over, are borrowing from Ettore Sottsass’ 1980s rigor to create a kind of “modern Memphis” – almost like a nostalgic love letter to the controversial concept.

The most recent instance of this resurgence is Patricia Urquiola’s latest project, The Room Mate Hotel Giulia in Milan. Having originally been forged by Sottsass and his gang of Italian designers and architects in Milan, Memphis provided Urquiola with the perfect design mechanism to best capture the personality of the design capital, and the hotel within it.

The scope of the job, required the cohesive design of 85 room, a concierge/reception lobby with a breakfast bar and a spa/gym. “Room Mate Hotel Giulia has a great connection with the city of Milan in the use of materials and elements,” says Urquiola. “The hotel lobby floor is made of pink marble, the same used in the Duomo of Milan. Terracotta bricks, another typical feature in the Milanese architecture, are used on a curved wall in the lobby to create a tridimensional effect. The recurrent geometric patterns reflect the rigor of the city and also refer to the graphic arts, an important element of the cultural history of Milan.”

The rooms refer to typical Italian domestic spaces with a vintage touch. “The goal,” says Urquiola, “is to create an essential and very familiar space where guests find everything they need to live temporarily in the rooms as if they were at home. And all through areas of the hotel you can admire works of different artists, photographers and illustrators with a common denominator: they are Milanesi!”

The specific design elements of the rooms feature white ceilings with a geometric grid pattern – a reference to the city’s graphic arts as the birthplace of Memphis. This feature extends onto the upper part of the walls, which are painted in muted shades like moss green and duck-egg blue. Using block pastels in place of hard primary colour-ways a la traditional Memphis, is a clever departure from the movement, while honoring the essence of the original. More of an “ode to” than a total “copy-paste” approach.

This philosophy is present throughout each facet of the project, where the careful choice of materials and elements can be seen on arrival with the floor of the hotel lobby crafted in pink marble, through to the terracotta bricks seen on the curved feature wall which creates a three-dimensional effect in the restaurant and spa rooms.

True to fine Urquiola form, the spacious lobby area on the ground floor has been decorated with furniture all specified from Cassina including Urquiola’s own collaborations. For example, she released an updated version of Cassina’s Utrecht armchair, designed by Gerrit Rietveld in 1935, upholstered in a colourful, geometric textile by Dutch designer Bertjan Pot.

The rooms are perhaps the most pervasive manifestation of Urquiola’s modern Memphis, where the rooms have been divided into four categories, each adopting a domestic Italian character with an added vintage touch. The idea of taking elements such as colour – greens, red, dusty pinks and light blues – from each room and combining them has produced a mix and match effect, which of course is one of the key Memphis pillars. The bathrooms in particular are beautifully realised, where Urquiola hasn’t just mixed colour, but texture in her writing of this love letter.

The Room Mate Hotel Giulia is a shining example of our industry’s need to move beyond playing it safe, and start engaging in a bit more conceptual experimentation here and there. I know not every project will have the capacity to become a Memphis love letter. And nor should it! That would be a world gone mad. But maybe it’s time to put down the timber and brass every now and then, and start making some risky choices with a traditionally divisive but bold design movement.

Get more Memphis design inspiration here.

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