The ’80s design movement known as Memphis has reemerged, inspiring Greenpoint ceramicists, Supreme collaborations, and an exhibit at the Met Breuer.
See those wormlike patterns on the ceramic vases sold at Dimes? That’s Memphis. The urgent impulse to outfit your office with a canary-yellow filing cabinet? You’ve got Memphis brain. Loud colors and zany patterns, once laughed off as one of many bad decisions made in the 1980s, have sneaked back into the Zeitgeist. All of a sudden, everyone from young Brooklyn artisans to the creative director at Valentino is riffing on a style invented in December 1980, when a group of like-minded designers gathered in a tiny Milan apartment one night and founded Memphis.
At the time, the collective (and ensuing movement) known as Memphis was reacting to the austerity of modernism. Designers like Mies van der Rohe and Milo Baughman made furniture with chilly chrome and expensive leather; Memphis designers had an affection for cheap plastic and a mishmash of shapes and colors. When Memphis debuted its first collection, spectators lined up early on to gawk but, aside from a devoted few (Karl Lagerfeld and David Bowie among them), not necessarily to buy. But now, nearly 40 years after Memphis’s inception, its Tahiti lamps are replacing exposed-filament bulbs in apartments throughout the city. Even West Elm has embraced the Memphis squiggle. As in the past, this resurgence is also a response to design trends: We’ve hit peak mid-century modern, and all that sleek, teak, “tasteful” furniture is starting to look the same. So are coffee shops, Airbnbs, boutique hotels, and co-working spaces in cities around the world, with their white brick walls, tulip tables, and Eames chairs. Maybe it makes more sense to match these bizarro times with some bizarro furniture. Which you can do: Most of the original Memphis pieces from the ’80s are still in production and available for purchase through Memphis Milano in Milan and the New York gallery Urban Architecture. And the original Memphis designers are getting more royalties than ever — something they never saw coming. “The saying goes that three things gain dignity with age,” says Peter Shire, one of the founding members. “Whores, ugly buildings, and politicians. Maybe you can now add Memphis to that.”
You Know It’s Memphis When There’s…
Laminate and Terrazzo
Memphis designers used these materials usually found on floors for tables and lamps.
The Bacterio print, designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1978, is Memphis’s trademark pattern.
Sesame Street Colors
Think sofas with green arms, blue backs, and yellow seats.
In place of rectangular shapes (like, say, for chair legs), Memphis favors circles and triangles.
The Birth and Rebirth of Memphis
From an apartment in Milan to the shelves of West Elm.
Ettore Sottsass, the designer known up until this point for his red Olivetti Valentine typewriter, spots a geometric ceramic teapot in Wet magazine (below) and tells his partners Aldo Cibic and Matteo Thun to ask the pot’s designer, Peter Shire, to collaborate. The Memphis philosophy — a reaction to the strict, straight lines of modernism — was still inchoate in Sottsass’s mind. But a movement was afoot. “We were talking to each other with these objects,” Shire says. “We responded to big shapes and colors, instead of chrome and leather.” In his early 60s, Sottsass establishes Sottsass Associati, a Milan design consultancy that will become a breeding ground for the future Memphis Group.
In his early 60s, Sottsass establishes Sottsass Associati, a Milan design consultancy that will become a breeding ground for the future Memphis Group.
One night, a group of designers cram into Sottsass’s 270-square-foot Milan apartment. Everyone is drunk, sitting on the floor, looking at each other’s sketches of lamps and chairs. “We started applauding whenever we looked at someone’s drawings,” says Martine Bedin, one of the Memphis designers there. “Ettore said, ‘This is a collection! Let’s make it.’ ” That night, they listened to Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” — thus the name.
With no introduction or catalogue, Memphis shows its first collection, which includes this Carlton sideboard (below), at Salone de Mobile in Milan. People line up down the block to see it. “When we got there, it was a huge traffic jam,” recalls Bedin, “and Ettore thought there was a terrorist attack. Later, we found out everyone was there for us.”
Sottsass Associati starts designing store interiors for Esprit with plastic-laminate counters and terrazzo floors and walls. (In 2016, Opening Ceremony will relaunch the clothing line with a print similar to Sottsass’s Bacterio pattern.)
The Memphis Group stages its first U.S. show in a loft in Chelsea. Three thousand people show up for the opening, though very few buy anything. “Nothing was commercially successful at the time,” says Sottsass’s widow, and Memphis’s historian, Barbara Radice.
Playboy photographs playmate Marianne Gravatte in Shire’s Bel Air chair. “That was a special moment,” Shire says.
The exhibit “Memphis to Memphis” opens in Memphis, Tennessee. The mayor presents the group with a key to the city. “We came from being nobodies,” Bedin says. “They were waiting for us at the airport with a band. It was completely crazy.”
Sottsass, believing that Memphis has fully expressed itself and not wanting to be defined by a single movement, leaves the group he started. “He felt that the experiment was over,” says Marco Zanini, one of the original designers.
The Noho Star opens on Lafayette Street with terrazzo floors and a Memphis-inspired host stand designed by artist Kiki Kogelnik. This past year, the owners had an exact replica of the table made.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse debuts. The spirit of the Memphis style (though not necessarily the philosophy) enters the mainstream. The movie Ruthless People, drenched in Memphis-inspired décor, comes out that year, too.
The group formally dissolves.
Saved by the Bell premieres with a set design heavily influenced by Memphis.
Karl Lagerfeld, who filled his Monaco home with Memphis furniture, sells his entire collection at Sotheby’s.
For its spring-summer 2006 collection, Miu Miu uses Nathalie Du Pasquier’s textile designs.
LACMA shows the first major American survey of Sottsass’s work. The architect passes away the following year.
Design store Darkroom London assembles a collection called “So Sottsass,” commissioning Memphis pieces from various designers. “At the time, Memphis was kind of bubbling under the radar,” says store owner Rhonda Drakeford. “We painted patterns all over the walls. It stopped people in their tracks.”
American Apparel releases a collection with Du Pasquier–designed patterns. Two months later, Sofia Coppola tells W magazine that she is obsessed with Du Pasquier’s Carrot vase.
French fashion brand Pigalle paints a very Memphis basketball court in the 9th Arrondissement.
Supreme releases an apparel-and-skate-deck collection designed by Alessandro Mendini, who exhibited in the first Memphis show.
Acme Studio, the first American company Sottsass designed for, releases archival and deadstock Memphis jewelry online.
David Bowie’s estate sells 100 pieces from his personal Memphis collection, including the Casablanca sideboard by Sottsass. Sotheby’s estimated it would sell for around $5,000; it goes for $88,419.
West Elm releases a Du Pasquier–inspired collection from Brooklyn designer Dusen Dusen. Memphis goes big-box.
Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli says he took inspiration for his fall collection from Memphis.
MoCA surveys Shire’s work in “Naked Is the Best Disguise.” Kathryn Bentley, owner of L.A. design shop Dream Collective, says: “Peter Shire is a local for us here, and he’s been heavy in the air.”
The Met Breuer will open its show “Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical,” connecting his work to ancient Egypt and the Beat generation. “The time felt right,” says curator Christian Larsen. “Sottsass challenged the modernist dogma and deserves a place in the canon.”
Nine Iconic Pieces
Memphis members on their most memorable lamps-on-wheels and “sofas,” most of which are still in production, and for sale through Urban Architecture, 1205 Manhattan Ave., Greenpoint.
The founder Ettore Sottsass
Iconic piece: Tahiti lamp ($1,500). The Tahiti lamp is a symbol of Memphis’s resurgence — it’s often a first purchase for new collectors.
Where he is now: Died in 2007. Lives on via @ettoresottsass.
Iconic piece: Super lamp ($1,200). “I was designing everything with wheels because I had been moving a lot and was tired of dragging my stuff around.”
Where she is now: Practicing architecture and design in Paris.
Nathalie du Pasquier
Iconic piece: Royal sofa (available only at auction). “The structure of the piece doesn’t come from its shape — it comes from the patterns and colors.”
Where she is now: Painting and designing textiles under her label CoopDPS.
Iconic piece: Bel Air chair ($12,000). “The media couldn’t resist it. It was a frenzy. There were over 200 articles about my chair in the first year.”
Where he is now: Making ceramics in Echo Park, Los Angeles.
Iconic piece: Rare Bird coffeepot series (available only at auction). “The rare birds were all coffeepots with ergonomic handles, but of course nobody used them as coffeepots.”
Where he is now: A principal at Milan design firm Matteo Thun & Partners.
Iconic piece: Magnolia library ($15,000). “With its glass and plants, this looks both elegant and unpredictable.”
Where he is now: Co-founded the Domus Academy, the first international post-graduate school of design.
Iconic piece: Alpha Centauri ($5,500). “It was interesting to innovate in Murano-glass design, because Murano had already been around for 700 years.”
Where he is now: Working as a designer and architect in Rio de Janeiro.
Iconic piece: D’Antibes cabinet ($9,500). “This piece will be forever discussed, criticized, copied, and reinterpreted by generations to come.”
Where he is now: Running a housewares-design studio.
Iconic piece: Andy ($7,500), Sandy ($7,200), and Louis ($6,800). “Some of these pieces are lacquered wood and others are plastic laminate, but you almost can’t tell the difference.”
Where he is now: Working on sustainable-design projects in Milan.
The 25-Year-Old Keeping Ettore Sottsass Alive on Instagram
It was at a flea market in Paris where Raquel Cayre, a 25-year-old who studied physical therapy at BU, saw one of Ettore Sottsass’s wavy pink Ultrafragola mirrors. “I was obsessed, and I needed it,” she says. “But I couldn’t afford it.” So instead, she bought out-of-print books on the late designer and began collecting images online. Which, naturally, led to Instagram. Cayre, who’s friends (in real life) with Instagram celebrity Elliot Tebele of @fuckjerry, got the notion to build an online Memphis following. Early last year, she took her muse’s name, @EttoreSottsass, and began posting archival photos from her books. The name helped Cayre amass close to 50,000 followers — including design-world bigwigs like Kelly Wearstler and India Mahdavi — and even reached Barbara Radice, Sottsass’s widow, who got in touch with Cayre for an explanation. “Her niece was following me,” Cayre says. In a surreal twist, Radice invited @EttoreSottsass to her house in Milan to discuss. For Cayre, “it was like trying to show Instagram to my mom,” she says. “So frustrating.” But after explaining that the account was a tribute to his design, and that she wasn’t making any money from it, “Barbara gave me her blessing,” Cayre says. (“I wanted Raquel to make it clear that it was coming from her and not Sottsass himself,” Radice adds.) Meanwhile, the art adviser Eleanor Cayre, Raquel’s cousin, introduced her to Memphis dealer Keith Johnson of Urban Architecture. She’s since bought that mirror and now lives in an almost fully Memphis apartment in Tribeca. The Instagram account has led to furniture-advising and curating jobs for Cayre and, even though she’s added her own name to the bio, a new, eerie kind of fame for Sottsass: “When I post from Italy, people will comment, ‘Sottsass is in Milan!’ ”
Plus the Ceramicists and Stool Designers Memphis Inspired
Young makers who’ve rediscovered the movement.
30, Kennebunk, Maine
“We actually grew up in a house with a lot of postmodern and Memphis furniture, not really knowing that it was part of any movement. Now my sister and I work with Corian, traditionally a countertop material, but I’m using it for these small vessels. It’s speckled, which gives it a Memphis vibe.”
Deco vessel, $190 at spadonehome.com
“I was at RISD when someone told me I should look up Memphis, and I was like, ‘What’s Memphis?’ I had no idea there was a precedent to what I wanted to make. What I do is a check on mainstream design. It’s almost like extreme kitsch.”
Eyeball rug, $1,500 at r-and-company.com
“The Memphis-like pattern on my Raw Mark pitcher is actually one of the first patterns I ever did, but it stuck because people love it.”
Raw Mark pitcher, $125 at recreationcentershop.com
Ellen Van Dusen
“I remember finding out about Memphis when my boyfriend sent me something on Tumblr in 2012 and being like, ‘Oh my God, why haven’t I heard of this?’ I love that everything they did sort of looked like a drawing of something instead of reality.”
Rocks pillow, $62 at dusendusen.com
“I love the clarity of Memphis. People might see it and think it looks like chaos, but it’s completely the opposite. It’s a clear, concise, measured approach.”
Pattern Chesspiece stool, $2,700 at annakarlin.com
“Memphis was all about industrial methods and modes of making things. Now people like me use the same colors and patterns, but it’s more about using the hand.”
Blue milking stool, $1,100 at workadayhandmade.com
*This article appears in the May 29, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.