The Memphis Group

Flash-in-the-pan or enduring contemporary influence?

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Published on
September 14, 2022

The San Francisco Gate once called the work of the Memphis Group "a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price." While it may be an understatement to call the collective's quirky aesthetic divisive, its lasting impact on the design world is undeniable. Many examples of Memphis' finest pieces, ranging from tableware to sculpture, are included in Litchfield's upcoming sale, The Prindle Collection. 

Lot 402, Glass Bowl
Lot 402 Glass Bowl

In 1981, famed Italian architect Ettore Sottsass called a group of designers to his Milan home to discuss the possibility of creating a new design collective. Rumor has it that Bob Dylan's Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again played repeatedly during this first meeting of what would become the legendary Memphis Group. While the name of the group was certainly inspired by the classic tune, Sottsass has also said that the word Memphis was chosen because of its vagueness. Referring to both the Tennessee city and the capital city of Ancient Egypt, its ambiguity became a sort of ethos for the group, whose approach to design was nothing if not eclectic. 

From left: Lot 427, Euphrates Vase (1983); Lot 430, Nilo Vase (1983)
From left: Lot 427 Euphrates Vase (1983); Lot 430 Nilo Vase (1983)

At its core, Memphis was a rebellion against the mainstream. The mid-century modern style of the 1960s and the minimalism of the 1970s had popularized design that prized muted colors, clean lines, and a "less is more" philosophy. Sottsass and his colleagues were bored with this level of restraint. They conceptualized something that was purposefully gaudy, playful, and, in the founder's words, "outrageous." Borrowing geometric shapes from Art Deco style, bright colors from Pop Art, and kitsch aesthetics from the 1950s, Memphis sought to reflect middle-class tastes rather than those of the established design world. The group's insurrectionary attitude was also reflected in their choice of materials, which included plastic laminate and terrazzo. Synonymous with commercial decoration, these elements fly in the face of fine design conventions. 

Lot 231, Maria Sanchez, Squash Ashtray
Lot 231 Maria Sanchez Squash Ashtray
From left: Lot 423, Ettore Sottsass, Ceramic Totem; Lot 424, Ettore Sottsass, Ceramic Totem
From left: Lot 423 Ettore Sottsass, Ceramic Totem; Lot 424 Ettore Sottsass, Ceramic Totem

At a glance, thanks to its love of bright abstract shapes, the Memphis aesthetic might read as "retro" to contemporary audiences. Sottsass' Bacterio print, made up of short squiggles, became an icon of the group's daring approach to design. However, despite its resemblance to trends of decades past, Memphis was decidedly forward-looking. The group's ability to transform what's mundane and tacky into brilliant works of design was wholly new.

From left: Lot 144, Memphis for Acme, Group of Pins; Lot 145, Memphis for Acme, Group of Pins
From left: Lot 144 Memphis for Acme, Group of Pins; Lot 145 Memphis for Acme, Group of Pins

Three months after their initial meeting, Memphis made their debut at the Salon del Mobile of Milan furniture fair. Despite the ensuing commercial rejection, which was not only expected but invited by the group, it developed a cult following. Karl Lagerfeld can be counted among this band of supporters; he bought Sottsass’s first collection in its entirety. David Bowie was also a fan, having collected over 400 of the collective's pieces over the course of his life. 

Lot 147, Martine Bedin, Super Lamp
Lot 147 Martine Bedin, Super Lamp

Some of the group's notable members included Alessandro Mendini and Peter Shire, both of whom are featured in the collection of John Prindle. Celebrated French designer Martine Bedin is responsible for conceiving one of Memphis' most innovative designs, the Super lamp. As a child, she recalls being fascinated with "forbidden things." Perhaps it's this inclination towards the taboo that galvanized her to create this unexpected lamp on wheels, which is also up for auction. A prototype of the Super lamp resides in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

From left: Lot 425, Ettore Sottsass, Ceramic Totem; Lot 426, Ettore Sottsass, Ceramic Totem
From left: Lot 425 Ettore Sottsass, Ceramic Totem; Lot 426 Ettore Sottsass, Ceramic Totem

Sottsass left the group in 1985, just three years before Memphis dissolved entirely. Although its run was short and its design niche, the collective proved a powerful influence on pop culture. Many 90s television shows like Miami Vice and Saved by the Bell drew from the bright abstractions when curating their own looks. Surfing, skating, and skiing subcultures also adopted aspects of the aesthetics. In Dior's Fall 2011 show as well as Missoni's Winter 2015 collection, Memphis influence is glaring. Wired magazine even credited the group for inspiring corporate logo design in the 2010s, calling the visual branding of many startups from the era "corporate Memphis." In recent years, alum Nathalie du Pasquier has collaborated with brands like American Apparel, HAY, and West Elm to create Memphis-inspired items. And, just this year, Swiss designer Christoph Radl curated a show for the Triennial Milano called Memphis Again.

From left: Lot 367, Art Glass Sculpture; Lot 366, Art Glass Sculpture
From left: Lot 367 Art Glass Sculpture; Lot 366 Art Glass Sculpture
Lot 148, Blue Painted Coffee Table (1980). Pictured atop the table (from left): Lot 201 Sergio Asti for Sapergo Nara and Jaiper Vases; Lot 202 Sergio Asti for Sapergo BKK Vase
Lot 148 Blue Painted Coffee Table (1980) Pictured atop the table (from left): Lot 202 Sergio Asti for Sapergo BKK Vase; Lot 201 Sergio Asti for Sapergo Nara and Jaiper Vases

The Memphis pieces featured here and many more are included in Litchfield's upcoming sale, The Prindle Collection. Bid now or bid live during the auction: the first session goes live on September 20th at 10:00AM ET with the second session to follow on September 21st at 10:00AM ET. All property ships from Litchfield, CT. 

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