On December 11, 1980, Ettore Sottsass called a meeting between a group of international designers. This meeting was the first interaction between the designers, who in 1981, would form the collaborative Memphis Group (or Memphis Milano). The name was inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, which played repeatedly throughout that first meeting. Founding members include Alessandro Mendini, Martine Bedin, Andrea Branzi, Aldo Cibic, Michele de Lucchi, Nathalie du Pasquier, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, Shiro Kuramata, Matteo Thun, Javier Mariscal, Luciano Paccagnella, George Sowden, Marco Zanini, Ettore Sottsass, and the journalist Barbara Radice.
After its 1981 debut, Memphis Milano dominated the early 1980s design scene with its post-modernist style. It took its inspiration from design movements such as Art Deco, Pop Art, and 1950s Kitsch. Following their highly-acclaimed debut at Milan’s prestigious Salone del Mobile, the group created furniture and design objects from 1981 – 1988. Furniture, fabrics, ceramics, glass and metal were their favourite mediums to work with. Their designers were characterized by asymmetrical shapes, bold colour palettes, vibrant patterns, and futuristic themes.
The group’s work has been described as “bizarre”, “misunderstood”, “loathed”, and a “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”. Famous patrons of Memphis design include Karl Lagerfeld and the late David Bowie, both boasting impressive collections. Lagerfeld’s early 1980s Monaco penthouse was a shrine to the design movement. It was captured in a 1983 interview between Lagerfeld and Regina Spelman and her photographer husband Jaques Schumacher for a little known German fashion magazine called ‘MODEundWOHEN’.
Up until his death last year, David Bowie was an avid collector of works by the Memphis Milan group. His personal Memphis Milan collection boasted over 100 unique pieces and was sold at Sotheby’s on November 11, 2016, in an auction that included over 400 of his personal items. The entire collection fetched over $55-million Canadian dollars. Notable items in Bowie’s collection included Peter Shire’s Big Sur sofa, Olivetti’s ‘Valentine’ Portable Typewriter, and Ettore Sottsass’ Don table lamp, Enorme telephone and Carlton bookcase.
“When you look at a piece of Memphis design, you see their unconventionality, the kaleidoscope of forms and patterns, the vibrant contrasting colours that really shouldn’t work but really do,” said Cécile Verdier, co-head of 20th-century design at Sotheby’s. “The works produced by the historical avant-garde design collaborative Memphis Milano, led by Ettore Sottsass, could not have found a more receptive and tuned-in audience than David Bowie”.
When Atomic Design, a lighting and furniture shop located in Toronto, opened its doors in 2008 they were one of just a few shops in Toronto offering Postmodern and 80’s design. After more than a decade of involvement in the world of decorative art and jewellery, both in the United Kingdom and Canada, owner Lawrence Blairs made the decision to open an intimate boutique in the heart of Toronto´s Art+Design district to share his passion for twentieth century art and design. At that time, this genre of design was very lukewarm and extremely niche; most of the interest came from architects and a handful of collectors.
“They say that in fashion and music, trends tend to be circular and I think that in many ways that can also happen with design. I feel that Memphis and Postmodernism have now come full circle and is now being appreciated and viewed objectively by a new younger audience and collector,” said Blairs, owner, Atomic Design. “This interest is also heightened by high profile individuals such as David Bowie (whose estate just sold off his personal Memphis Milano collection for 55 million at Sotheby’s last week) and also Karl Lagerfeld an initial champion of Memphis back in the early 80’s. Also in London UK the revival of Postmodern graphics is now in full swing through the work of Peter Judson et al whilst in Paris dealers such as Remix Gallery are showing specifically just 80’s design.”
Visiting the shop is like walking into a design museum, with Blairs acting as a willing and knowledgeable guide. The shop showcases a mix of unique furniture, art, lighting, modernist glass, jewellery and objects from the early 1960’s through to the mid 80’s. Browse through their curated list of items here.
Here are a few Memphis/Postmodern pieces that Atomic design has shown within the last 12 months:
Although the movement only lasted a short time, the impact of Memphis is still very much felt today. We’ve seen a buzz around Memphis Milano in the fashion and design worlds, instigating a bit of a revival. Of course, the timing of David Bowie’s Sotheby’s auction is right on trend, further positioning him as the king of everything, even in death.
In Christian Dior’s Fall 2011 Couture Collection, the fashion house’s first without John Galliano, we saw Bill Gaytten transform the Dior women into the most excellent examples of Memphis sensibility. The collection was not well-received by critics, but lovers of the design movement were thrilled.
In 2014, Natalie du Pasquier designed a Memphis line for American Apparel. An original Memphis Milano member, she’s best known for her bold, signature prints.
In an April 2015 interview with Metropolis Magazine, Memphis member Du Pasquier comments on the movement’s legacy “…That is what most people think about Memphis, that it was just fun. But bright colours are not childish. Those patterns were not funny. It was totally misunderstood in the sense that it was taken for a joke — that the serious thinking was part of modernism, and because what we were doing was in reaction against that, it meant we were not serious. The press thought we just wanted to have fun. But all of this was extremely serious to us. The ideas in our work were very serious in the sense that we thought they were important, and we deeply felt them.”
Heidi is president of Matte PR and a mentor with Toronto Fashion Incubator. She’s inspired by brutalist architecture, sculptural fashion, and Italian“Giallo” films. Influences include John Waters, Yoko Ono, and Suzy Lake.