Space Oddities: Bowie-Sottsass-Memphis at Modernism Museum
Must-See Museum Show:
The largest exhibition of Memphis objects ever presented in an American museum
In the 1980s, a decade defined by big hair, loud clothes and MTV, artistic expression was just as over-the-top, attention-getting and bordering the absurd. During this time, a group of designers began making powerful postmodern statements almost cartoonish and comical in their aesthetic.
These designers were known as The Memphis Group, brought together by Italian conceptual designer Ettore Sottsass. The Memphis Group emulated the design thinking of Sottsass who ignored the opinions of critics to create art and objects that flew in the face of 70s minimalism.
The late musician and pop icon David Bowie was a famous collector of Memphis works, many of which are on exhibit at the Modernism Museum in Mount Dora, Florida. The largest exhibition of Memphis works in an American Museum, the exhibit includes over 75 works.
Sottsass was in his 60s when he founded The Memphis Group bringing together young architects with a shared interest in experimenting with unconventional materials and breaking design rules of modernism and classical forms.
Their works were humorous, irreverent and often blended high and low culture. The style appropriated modern iconography, infusing it with space-age futurism, nostalgic nods and bold ornamentation.
Sottsass collaborators included Martine Bedin, Aldo Cibic, Michele De Lucchi, Matteo Thun and Marco Zanini, George Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier.
Together they designed furniture, lamps and ceramics that rebuked modernist doctrine and presented their works in an exhibition in 1981 that launched the movement.
The Memphis Group was both revered and reviled for its kitschy, colorful art objects that transcend the boundary between art and design.
The works resonated in a decade dominated by pop culture’s flamboyant icons—Madonna, Boy George, Micheal Jackson and questionable taste: think neon colored clothing, shoulder pads and purple eyeshadow.
The movement’s shortlived moment in the sun ended in 1985 when Sottsass left Memphis and the group disbanded in 1987.
After Bowie’s death, Sotheby’s London sold 100 lots from his art collection in November, 2016. Other famous collectors of the Memphis Group include fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and Nicholas Ghesquiere, artistic director of Louis Vuitton.
Architect and industrial designer Michael Graves continued to evolve many of the Memphis Group ideals through his work as “The Father of Postmodernism Architecture.” Just days before his death in 2015, I had the privilege of visiting Michael Graves at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. Grave’s signature postmodern design language produced many iconic products over his lifetime and made Target the cool place to shop. I invite you to watch my talk with Michael as he shares thoughts on his legacy and the future of architecture and design.
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