The Memphis Group

Despite its name suggesting the design collective was founded in the US, Ettore Sottsass founded the Memphis Group in Milan, Italy in 1981. Named after the Bob Dylan song, "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”, the group was made up of Italian designers whose work encapsulated post-Modernist design. At first, the group’s pieces were met with confusion: their use of bold, clashing colours and asymmetrical shapes did not conform to the Modernist movement’s clean lines and muted palette. The San Francisco Chronicle describing their work as “a riot of colour and materials that often overwhelmed a piece's original intent, a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”, and it wasn’t until the 90’s that design-watchers began to take notice and the group’s popularity really took off despite the fact that the collective was dismantled in 1988. The Memphis Group made a statement; it championed creative freedom by challenging design conventions with its use of unorthodox materials and colours, leaving the design world with a blurred vision of high and low class design.

A typical Memphis living room

Though he spoke little publicly of his fondness for the group, the late David Bowie was a fan of Memphis from its beginning and in 1998 he told the New York Times “art was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own”. Amongst Bowie’s private art and furniture collection auctioned at Sotheby’s in November 2016 was Memphis work. Cécile Verdier, co-head of 20th-century design at Sotheby’s said of the Memphis collection "This is design with no limits and no boundaries, 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". Pieces such as the ‘Big Sur’ sofa by Peter Shires (estimated to fetch £3,000 and selling for £74,500) and a red Olivetti Valentine typewriter designed by Sottsass and Perry King (estimated to fetch £300 and going for £45,000) were auctioned. On average, the estimates for the auction were ten times lower than the prices achieved, demonstrating not only how much people are willing to pay to own something of Bowie’s, but also that Memphis’ work is still very much in demand.

Ettore Sottsass himself, Memphis x Adidas, Karl Lagerfeld in his Memphis heavy apartment; 1983

The legacy of the group is still visible, not only in the furniture design world, but in the fashion one too. The group’s iconic style served as inspiration for the A/W11 Christian Dior Couture collection and the A/W15 Missoni collection. They have even collaborated with Adidas, producing the Memphis Group x Adidas Originals ZX collection in 2014 which applied the pop art style of the collective with the Adidas trainer ranges that debuted in 1989 - the year after the group disbanded. A new generation of designers who were born in the Memphis era of the 80’s are now giving a nod to the movement in their own work. Interior designers such as Camille Walala and Atelier Kobalt have encapsulated the style of Memphis well, incorporating both asymmetrical shapes and gaudy colours into their designs. Inspired by a Bob Dylan song and loved by Bowie, it is no surprise that this group still has the ability to inspire both the design and fashion worlds nearly thirty years on.

Words by: Chloe