’The Look of Summer The Memphis Group and its impact on modern culture

‘Totem Menta’, designed in 1985 by Ettore Sottsass, displays joyful ceramic shapes, glazed and enamelled in polychrome. Signed at the base, numbered ’23/150’ and measuring 58cm high, it is expected to make £1,000 to £2,000 in a specialist auction later this month.

THIS month we are looking at the more bizarre side of modern design. The Memphis Group has been described as a ‘shotgun wedding between Fisher-Price and the Bauhaus’, giving us the tutti fruity cultural climate of the era. (The Memphis Group is an Italian design group and nothing to do with Memphis, USA.)

Lots associated with the Memphis Group are rare and appeal to modern taste, therefore they make good prices at auction. Being a short-lived movement of only seven years, pioneering designer Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) and his fellow postmodernists of The Memphis Group define the landscape of contemporary design, with their witty and whimsical designs that, despite being designated a fad, continue to be a point in design history that we love to revisit.

In 1980, the visionary designer and architect Ettore Sottsass gathered a collective of contemporary creatives in his living room to debate the future of design. The 1970s had seen the evolution of design traverse down a path of straight lines and hard angles, with brutalism and minimalism being the order of the day. 

Sottsass was concerned with this direction, claiming it took design away from the masses and that it had become too serious for its own good. With his twenty-two fellow visionaries in agreement, they all left the Sottsass apartment with their objective clearly defined. This marked the beginning of The Memphis Group, a movement which is characterised by its rejection of the modernist principles of simplicity and functionality, and its embrace of irony, ornamentation and historical references. 

A three-month period of immense productivity began following that evening meeting, which saw designs and patterns conceived across glass, ceramics, furniture, lighting and decorative arts. The group looked back through design history, borrowing the liberal and exuberant shapes of Art Deco and the bold colours of 1950s Pop Art, fusing these with contemporary materials such as MDF, plastic and printed laminates. Their approach to design – unveiled at the 1981 Salone del Mobile in Milano – shaped a decade of bold colours and abstract shapes that we still associate as stereotypically Eighties to this day. Designs have Picassoesque characteristics using simplified forms and geometric shapes.

Memphis was never meant to be put on a pedestal; it was intended for the consumer, for everyday use and enjoyment. Yet, with its growing commercial success throughout the 1980s, the group’s ethos became ever more difficult to uphold. For that reason, Sottsass left the group in 1985, with his remaining collaborators officially disbanding two years later. In its brief seven-year period, however, the group carved out an entirely new direction in the history of design and it continues to define a decade of aesthetics that are celebrated to this day. 

Collectors of Memphis pieces have included notables such as Karl Lagerfeld and David Bowie, names that have ensured that pieces are still fiercely competed over at auction to this day.

The Memphis Group was not (initially) commercially successful; rather it celebrated fun. Its daring and provocative design traits make collectors want to bid again and again.

Editor’s Note: Perhaps you also have jewellery, antiques and collectables that might be valuable?  If so, it is worth getting the advice of an Independent Antiques Valuer to assess your items. For further information, please contact Vivienne on 01629 640210 or 07870 238788. Alternatively, go to www.viviennemilburn.co.uk  or email vivienne@viviennemilburn.co.uk