The postmodern design dialect from the ’80s lives on in colorful, fanciful furnishings and home décor.
Memphis can mean different things to different people. For some it’s the city in Tennessee where strains of blues, soul and rock ’n’ roll were born; for others it’s the ancient Egyptian city of the dead. It can also mean a colorful design style that sprouted in Milan, Italy, thrived internationally in the 1980s and is having something of a revival today.
Two years ago the Met Breuer in New York helped launch the revival with a major retrospective on Ettore Sottsass, the key founder of the Memphis Group. Last year Nordstrom’s flagship store in Seattle threw together a Memphis Milano popup store, featuring various home accessories and furnishings from greeting cards and toothbrushes to colorful tables and chairs, including Peter Shire’s fanciful “Bel Air” chair. Los Angeles–based Shire was the only American among Memphis’ original members, designing for the group’s line throughout its seven years of existence. Loyal followers of Memphis design included David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld. The latter, who died in February, bought key items in the collection for his apartment in Monaco. He had Ettore Sottsass’ multi-colored “Carlton” room divider, George James Sowden’s plump red “Oberoi” chair and Masanori Umeda’s “Tawaraya” square lounge or “conversation pit,” resembling a boxing ring with striped sides.
The Nordstrom pop-up was initiated by Nordstrom’s VP of Creative Projects, Olivia Kim. “I’ve been a huge Memphis fan since I was a child,” she told Adpro, an online offshoot of Architectural Digest. She herself has a collection of Memphis objects, still being produced through an Italian company.
Furthermore, young designers today are being influenced by Memphis. “There is a lot of revival going on,” says David Mocarski, chair of graduate and undergraduate environmental design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, “around the world with the younger generation — in Los Angeles, New York, Berlin and everywhere else.”
Memphis design was born some four decades ago. Many see it as part of the postmodern movement in design and architecture. In December 1980 Sottsass — a veteran designer who had worked with modernist George Nelson and in the electronics division of Olivetti, where he designed the famous red “Valentine” typewriter — gathered together other young designers for discussion and brainstorming. During the meeting they listened to Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Thus the name, Memphis Group, coined by Sottsass’ wife, Barbara Radice; Shire credits her with a lot of the group’s organizing and success.
The next year they debuted their first collection of clocks, lamps, cabinets, sofas and tables at Milan’s famous annual furniture fair, the Salone del Mobile, where they caused a sensation. “The night we launched Memphis, during the Salone del Mobile, we could not believe that the road in front of the showroom had to be closed after an hour because so many people were on the street,” designer Matteo Thun told Wallpaper in 2011. Suzanne Slesin reported in The New York Times, “Billed as the New International Style, Memphis is an outrageous collection of bizarre colors and shapes designed by Ettore Sottsass, the genial guru of Italian design, and a group of international architects and designers… An effervescent, seductive and undeniably sympathetic group, it appalled some and amused others but put everyone attending the fair in a state of high excitement.”
American Peter Shire, who had studied ceramics at Chouinard Art Institute, was already making unusual, angled teapots. “I was making pots and attempting to make something I hadn’t seen before, and nobody else had seen before,” says Shire during an interview at his Echo Park studio. Having heard about the young Los Angeles artist, Sottsass visited him here and invited him to join the group. “He had an approach that wasn’t design-centric, it was art-centric,” says Shire. “It was about emotions and impact, it wasn’t about solutions and dictating a lifestyle. The other thing was that he spoke English and he spoke it well.”
A lifelong Angeleno, Shire was influenced by his father, an illustrator who was also a carpenter. They made furniture together, so he was familiar with the field. He did travel to Italy to work with Memphis but did most of his work for them by remote. “They’d tell me which things they’d be interested in,” Shire says.
In his studio we are surrounded by geometric ceramics and sculpture that reflect the colorful, whimsical Memphis style, though of course each designer in the group had his or her own personal style as well. “I sent them in the mail — drawings, thumbnail sketches. The first year they asked for a vanity, and I sent [a design for] a table, also. The table was a better fit, so they did something they didn’t even ask me for. I took that strategy and would send 60 or 70 designs at a time, I sent dozens on a sheet.” He became known for several pieces of furniture, including the “Bel Air” chair, with a tall back in the shape of a quarter-circle, and arm rests in two different colors. Also iconic was his “Brazil” table with its elongated triangular top in canary yellow — a piece that was in Lagerfeld’s collection.
Shire’s pieces were emblematic of the Memphis style, with its bright colors — often in sharp juxtaposition to another in the same piece — squiggles and stripes and shapes that emphasized geometry. The very titles of the pieces offered at the group’s first Milan show reflect the exuberant eccentricity of their aesthetics: Sottsass’s “Beverly” cabinet and “Tahiti” lamp Sowden’s “Oberoi” armchair and de Lucchi’s “Oceanic Lamp.” A number of critics and design historians have likened Memphis furniture to children’s toys and building blocks.
Design trends are not accidental — they are often a response to something in the sociopolitical fabric. “When Memphis started, it was a really, really serious time for modern design,” says Mocarski via telephone from Milan, where he was attending this year’s Salone del Mobile. “It had been a period of extremely modern design, ultra minimalist to the point where everyone was wondering, What happened to humor, to fun in design? What happened to color? Everyone was living in a super serious world, with all the nasty stuff going on. We had just gotten through the whole Vietnam War thing; there had been a lot of social unrest, just like we have now.” Mocarski adds, “Memphis, postmodern design was very influential on graphics, too. We began to see more fonts, more colors used.”
Due to limited and highly customized production, Memphis items were always expensive, beyond the means of the middle class, and some pieces were impractical — the chairs were comically uncomfortable. The group disbanded in 1988, but new Memphis pieces are still being manufactured in Italy. You can purchase them directly from memphis-milano.com, or visit the authorized American distributor in New York, Urban Architecture (there is no official distributor in California, alas). Auctions occasionally offer vintage Memphis pieces, or you can check out various online sellers such as 1stdibs.com, chairish.com and pamono.com.
Los Angeles pop-up gallery Furth Yashar presents a special exhibition, Peter Shire: Good Taste, from May 7 through 11 at the new Farrow & Ball La Cienega Design Quarter showroom, 741 N. La Cienega, L.A.