This essay was originally published in the inaugural issue of August Journal as “Learning from Milan.”
In the eleventh grade, at a small Quaker school in Durham, North Carolina, I wrote a history paper about Memphis. Not the city some ten hours away, but the seven-year-old Italian design movement known for its subversive combination of plastic laminate, abstract pattern, and totemic shapes. The cover of my report was blue, and on it I attempted my own hand-lettered version of a jazzed Memphis typeface. Its contents have since been lost to history, as has my teacher’s reaction to the celebration of plastic, color and artificiality at a school where the wind whistled between the vertical siding and, when the wood stove proved inadequate, we just wore our coats inside. Style was not one of the virtues taught here—critical thinking was—and yet a previous generation of upper schoolers had included a boy who thought he was David Bowie, and one of my lunch companions dressed as if she were about to appear in a Guns N’ Roses video. We all rebel in our own way.
My rebellion wasn’t against my education but the place: a wood building in the woods, to which, now that I was 16, I drove with my younger brother in my Nissan Sentra each morning. I had once glimpsed another life, where there were coffee bars on every corner and a tram at the end of the street; where the very old and the very new brushed up against each other, and the stores were filled with rainbow sweaters. That life was in Milan.
I celebrated my 13th birthday with my family on January 7, 1986, our first night in Milan. It was dark and foggy, and I cried. My father was due for a semester-long sabbatical, and my mother had arranged the same, so here we were, for six months, in a vast foreign city whose outlines I couldn’t see. The following Monday my brother and I would start at Italian schools, where we wouldn’t understand a word. I was terrified.
At first, only the food helped. I loved the crown-shaped rolls, crisp around a giant air bubble, from the bakery around the corner. I savored the rotisserie chicken from the farmers market at the end of the block. I slowly learned the Italian varieties of pizza (Siciliana forever) and appreciated that I didn’t need to negotiate toppings with my brother. I gained the courage to order my own cups of cioccolata or orzata at cafés.
School was a mystery and thirteen-year-old girls a brick wall, but in all the time I had to daydream while the professoressa taught, I studied my new classmates. Their clothes were different. Popped collars. Sweaters of many hues. And they carried clear plastic pencil cases and the cutest satchels I had ever seen, with hard sides, a long strap, and a flap that buckled over the top. Each featured a different pattern of cloth, lacquered to a shine. Italian girls didn’t wear backpacks. They came to school with glamour.
My family went downtown on the tram to the biggest plaza I had ever seen, the icicle-like cathedral, the cathedral-like Galleria. Our block and our apartment were clean and orderly, but these spaces were grand and ancient—and there was a Fiorucci around the corner from the Duomo. I recognized at once that this was a place where the cool girls shopped. I remember the shopping bag better than its contents. Made with clear, thick plastic, and adorned with a pair of cherubs, it should have been tacky but it was a treasure.
Benetton was there, too. Their ads were everywhere that year, but the stores, bright and white with stacks of sweaters running up the wall, like Technicolor lanterns lighting up the gray stone storefronts, stopped you dead in your tracks. It was hard to even move past the door without falling for a color. I finally settled on turquoise, but not without casting backward glances at cranberry and jade.
Spring progressed, and I never made any friends. My brother, who was 9, learned the few phrases required to play calcio and used that as his entrée—there were always boys kicking a ball around somewhere. But I made friends with the city. At a certain point, I could walk around the neighborhood by myself, order pastries at the bakery, finger the pens at the stationery store. Later, I would even ride the tram downtown alone to the Duomo to meet relatives visiting from out of town, proud that I knew my way around the monument. Milan became familiar, a home.
The bags were another story. They were from a company called Naj-Oleari, quite expensive, and available in a bewildering array of patterns and sizes, from Liberty-esque florals to stripes that looked dull in context. After much negotiation with my mother, I acquired one just in time for me to take it home to Durham. It was pearly gray, with a geometric scatter of tiny pastel cars. The color said sophisticated, the automobiles said kid. I didn’t know what I was yet—I may not have known until I was 30—but I loved that bag.
I didn’t know about Memphis, officially, while I was in Milan. My mother bought Barbara Radice’s book that year, and we could have seen a show, though we didn’t have the connections to go to the furniture fair. But I saw where it came from. Memphis, albeit for grown-ups, wasn’t that far from the Fiorucci cherubs, the candy colored sweaters, and the cheeky printed plastic bags that were part of 1980s Italian teen culture. My Milanese treasures, and the experience of seeking them out, had made me susceptible to its charms. The plastic aesthetic flourished in that old gray city, much in the way kawaii culture flourishes in new high-rise Tokyo. Cheeky taste refreshes the immovable and immutable. As founding member Ettore Sottsass told the Chicago Tribune in 1986, “Memphis is like a very strong drug. You cannot take too much. I don’t think you should put only Memphis around. It’s like eating only cake.”
Three years later and back in Durham, I wrote about Memphis because it seemed the farthest thing from where I was, a young city of wood and brick and asphalt, and an ongoing connection to where I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to live in a city, a real city, where the buildings were stuck together and I never needed to drive a car. I carried my coveted satchel, used my clear pencil case, and wore my candy-colored sweater until it was ragged. Sottsass’s Carlton bookcase, then as now my favorite Memphis piece, was not merely an object of fascination. It was a portal to the future me.