From Modernism to Kitsch: The Memphis Design Group

On November 11 David Bowie’s collection of furniture designed by members of the Memphis Group will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in London. The furniture auction will be preceded by two other auctions focusing on his collection of contemporary art. Long time readers of this blog will recall that Bowie studied art and design as well as music before he settled on a career as a musician/actor. It’s no surprise that he collected both art and design.

When I first learned that Bowie loved Memphis furniture I could see the reason for his fascination right away. Bold colors in daring, often clashing, combinations. Unexpected juxtapositions of textures and patterns. Geometric shapes in ultra-modern asymmetrical configurations. Memphis Design is classy, flashy, and eccentric. Just like one of David Bowie’s personas.

interior design Memphis Group

The Memphis Design Group was founded in 1980 by Italian designer Ettore Sottsass. It included established designers as well as recent design school graduates. The group took their name from a Bob Dylan song and their inspiration from just about everywhere. The 1980s was a decade in love with Post-Modernism – a movement noted for boldly mixing multiple styles – and the Memphis Group was quite possibly the most adventurous practitioner of that fashionable trend.

furniture design Memphis Group

Their over-the-top designs challenged the functionality and serious ambitions of modernism. They combined elements of Art Deco, Mid-Century Modern, Pop Art, low-brow kitsch, and industrial materials. Bertrand Pellegrin, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, called Memphis Design “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price.”

Although the group lasted for just seven years they produced an amazing collection of objects including furniture, lighting, ceramics, glass, textiles and clocks.

furniture design Memphis Group

furniture design Memphis Group

Sottsass left the group in 1987 and that same year there was a major stock market crash. The businessmen who bankrolled the original group redirected their funding to other projects and Memphis quietly faded away. There were several attempts to revive the movement during the 1990s but the efforts were never commercially successful.

Individual members of the group have continued working and producing items that reflect aspects of the classic Memphis style. You can, for example, see traces of Memphis Design in today’s products from companies such as Alessi and Kartell.

Recently there has been renewed interest in the original Memphis Group and an interest in creating a new more conservative version of the Memphis style. The new work by younger artists is more decorative, more sedate, and not political. This revival movement is, however, a testimony to the validity and influence of the original group’s core vision.

Learn more about the Memphis Group.

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