Memphis Group Design Objects: Must-See Museum Exhibit

by Karen LeBlanc

Space Oddities: Bowie-Sottsass-Memphis at Modernism Museum

Must-See Museum Show:

The largest exhibition of Memphis objects ever presented in an American museum

Pictured in this vignette is the Lido Sofa designed in 1982 by Michele De Lucchi for Memphis and the Continental side table designed in 1984 by Michele De Lucchi for Memphis, crafted of laminated wood and plastic. Rug by Nathalie du Pasquier Photo Credit: The Design Tourist. Both pieces were originally owned by David Bowie.

Pictured in this vignette is the Lido Sofa designed in 1982 by Michele De Lucchi for Memphis and the Continental side table designed in 1984 by Michele De Lucchi for Memphis, crafted of laminated wood and plastic. Rug by Nathalie du Pasquier. Photo Credit: The Design Tourist. Both pieces were originally owned by David Bowie.

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.

Pictured in this vignette are the Palace Chairs, 1983 by George Sowden and the Madras Table, 1986 by Nathalie Du Pasquier. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Pictured in this vignette are the Palace Chairs, 1983 by George Sowden and the Madras Table, 1986 by Nathalie Du Pasquier. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

These designers were known as The Memphis Group, brought together by Italian conceptual designer Ettore Sottsass.

Members of the Memphis Design Group including its founder Ettore Sottsass pictured with the gray mustache.

Members of the Memphis Design Group including its founder Ettore Sottsass pictured with the gray mustache.

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 Bel Air Chair designed in 1982 by Peter Shire and the Valentine typewriter designed in 1968 by Ettore Sottsass. This red typewriter is made of ABS plastic. Sottsass created the typewriter before his involvement in the Memphis Group. He designed it in collaboration with British designer Perry King for Olivetti it was groundbreaking for its pop sensibility and bright color. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

The Bel Air Chair designed in 1982 by Peter Shire and the Valentine typewriter designed in 1968 by Ettore Sottsass. This red typewriter is made of ABS plastic. Sottsass created the typewriter before his involvement in the Memphis Group. He designed it in collaboration with British designer Perry King for Olivetti it was groundbreaking for its pop sensibility and bright color. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

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.

Karen LeBlanc aka The Design Tourist filming a new episode at The Modernism Museum featuring an exhibit of Memphis Design Group Art Objects, many from David Bowie's private collection.

Karen LeBlanc aka The Design Tourist filming a new episode at The Modernism Museum featuring an exhibit of Memphis Design Group Art Objects, many from David Bowie’s private collection.

The largest exhibition of Memphis works in an American Museum, the exhibit includes over 75 works.

The Carlton Bookcase by Ettore Sottsass, is one of 20 pieces on exhibit that once belonged to David Bowie and are now in the hands of private collectors. The pieces are on loan for the exhibit at the Modernism Museum. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

The Carlton Bookcase by Ettore Sottsass, is one of 20 pieces on exhibit that once belonged to David Bowie and are now in the hands of private collectors. The pieces are on loan for the exhibit at the Modernism Museum. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Plaza 1981 by Michael Graves The Plaza vanity draws inspiration from Art Deco and old Hollywood. Although the vanity looks luxurious, its made of inexpensive materials—maple veneer over MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) mirrored glass and paint. The small bulbs evoke a starry night over Manhattan. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Plaza 1981 by Michael Graves The Plaza vanity draws inspiration from Art Deco and old Hollywood. Although the vanity looks luxurious, its made of inexpensive materials—maple veneer over MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) mirrored glass and paint. The small bulbs evoke a starry night over Manhattan. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Sottsass was in his 60s when he founded The Memphis Group bringing together young architects and designers with a shared interest in experimenting with unconventional materials and breaking design rules of modernism and classical forms.

Super, 1981 by Martine Bedin. This light is made of fiberglass, lacquered metal, and rubber. It is one of the most recognizable of Memphis Designs. Designer Martine Bedin envisioned it as a pet on wheels. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Super, 1981 by Martine Bedin. This light is made of fiberglass, lacquered metal, and rubber. It is one of the most recognizable of Memphis Designs. Designer Martine Bedin envisioned it as a pet on wheels. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

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.

Tawayara, 1981 by Masanori Umeda. The iconic boxing ring seating is made of lacquered wood. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Tawayara, 1981 by Masanori Umeda. The iconic boxing ring seating is made of lacquered wood. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Tartar, 1985 by Ettore Sottsass. This desk is part of the Memphis Group collection and is made of laminate wood. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Tartar, 1985 by Ettore Sottsass. This desk is part of the Memphis Group collection and is made of laminate wood. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Sottsass collaborators included Martine Bedin, Aldo Cibic, Michele De Lucchi, Matteo Thun and Marco Zanini, George Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier.

Bertrand 1987, by Massimo losa-Ghini. This desk from the Memphis collection is made of wood and metal drawing inspiration from 1930s streamlined automotive design. The designer referred to this style as Bolidism from the Italian word Bolide a fast moving object. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Bertrand 1987, by Massimo losa-Ghini. This desk from the Memphis collection is made of wood and metal drawing inspiration from 1930s streamlined automotive design. The designer referred to this style as Bolidism from the Italian word Bolide a fast moving object. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

 Together they designed furniture, lamps and ceramics that rebuked modernist doctrine and presented their works in an exhibition in 1981 that launched the movement. 

Roma, 1986 by Marco Zanini. This seat from the Memphis Group collection is made of molded fiberglass cast as a single piece. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Roma, 1986 by Marco Zanini. This seat from the Memphis Group collection is made of molded fiberglass cast as a single piece. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

The Memphis Group was both revered and reviled for its kitschy, colorful art objects that transcend the boundary between art and design.

Malabar, 1982 by Ettore Sottsass This shelf from the Memphis Group collection is made of plastic laminate wood and painted metal. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Malabar, 1982 by Ettore Sottsass This shelf from the Memphis Group collection is made of plastic laminate wood and painted metal. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

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. 

Palm Springs, 1984 by Ettore Sottsass. This table from the Memphis Group collection is crafted of wood and laminate with boldly contrasting colors. Also pictured are First chairs, 1983 by Michele de Lucchi made of enameled wood and metal. The First chair was introduced in the group's third collection. It is the only Memphis design mass produced. Its ergonomic back and elbow rests have the appearance of orbiting planets. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Palm Springs, 1984 by Ettore Sottsass. This table from the Memphis Group collection is crafted of wood and laminate with boldly contrasting colors. Also pictured are First chairs, 1983 by Michele de Lucchi made of enameled wood and metal. Photo Credit: The Design Tourist.

The First chair designed in 1983 by Michele de Lucchi was introduced in the group's third collection. It is the only Memphis design mass produced. Its ergonomic back and elbow rests have the appearance of orbiting planets. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

The First chair designed in 1983 by Michele de Lucchi was introduced in the group’s third collection. It is the only Memphis design mass produced. Its ergonomic back and elbow rests have the appearance of orbiting planets. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

 Max, 1987 by Ettore Sottsass. This shelf from the Memphis Group is made of lacquered wood and reconstituted veneer terrazzo tiles and plexiglass. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Max, 1987 by Ettore Sottsass. This shelf from the Memphis Group is made of lacquered wood and reconstituted veneer terrazzo tiles and plexiglass. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

The movement’s shortlived moment in the sun ended in 1985 when Sottsass left Memphis and the group disbanded in 1987.

Magnolia, 1985 Andrea Branzi. This ziggurat-shaped set of shelves is unusual among Memphis objects for its high tech and complex engineering. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

Magnolia, 1985 Andrea Branzi. This ziggurat-shaped set of shelves is unusual among Memphis objects for its high tech and complex engineering. Photo credit: The Design Tourist

After Bowie’s death,  Sotheby’s London sold 100 lots from his art collection in November, 2016. 

David Bowie pictured sitting on his Palm Springs Table, part of his many Memphis art objects and furniture pieces he collected over this life.

David Bowie pictured sitting on his Palm Springs Table, part of his many Memphis art objects and furniture pieces he collected over this life.

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. 

 For more on what’s new and next in design, subscribe to The Design Tourist Channel and sign up for the blog email.

 

 

 

You may also like

Leave a Comment