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Memphis: 40 Years of kitsch and elegance.

The current exhibition in the Vitra Design Museum Gallery

The exhibition »Memphis: 40 Years of Kitsch and Elegance« at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the group’s foundation through its creations, presenting furniture, lamps, bowls, drawings, sketches, and photographs that give insight into the world of Memphis. Exhibits include works by such well-known members as Ettore Sottsass, Michele De Lucchi, Martine Bedin, Michael Graves, Barbara Radice, Peter Shire, Nathalie Du Pasquier, and Shiro Kuramata.

The Memphis group was one of the most unusual phenomena to appear in the world of design in recent decades. It emerged in the winter of 1980/81, when a group of young designers eager to break away from the dogmas of functionalism and industrial design formed around the Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass. Characterized by garish colours and wild patterns, the Memphis designs seemed to have walked straight off the pages of a comic book and gave rise to a completely new look in which popular culture, advertising aesthetics, and post-modernism merged in a crazy medley.

The initiative for forming the group and many of its ideas came from the established Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass. He had started experimenting with sculptural pieces of furniture in the 1960s, applying colourful plastic laminates to creations which he called »totems«. The chair »Seggiolina da Pranzo« (»Lunch Chair«), which he designed for Studio Alchimia in 1978, also features the patterned laminate that was to become a Memphis trademark. His designs for large storage items are among the groups’s most important works; the »Beverly« sideboard he designed in 1981 will be on show in the exhibition. It combines strangely disparate elements such as a chromium-plated piece of bent tubular steel, a coloured light bulb, and figured wood or snakeskin finish laminates in a superb composition teetering between kitsch and elegance.
For a number of young designers, the Memphis group became a platform and springboard to launch their careers and achieve international acclaim. Michele De Lucchi, for example, continues to be active in international industrial design. The exhibition shows the chair »First« (1983), which is remarkable for the spherical objects mounted on its armrests to encircle the seated person like planets. De Lucchis »Riviera« chair from 1981, anticipates the pastel colours the designer was to use some years later in a series of experimental household appliances for Philips. This highlights the speed at which Memphis ideas entered everyday aesthetics and contributed to making 1980s design brighter and more playful.

Another leading Memphis designer, Nathalie Du Pasquier, applied the group’s ideas to sophisticated textile patterns and interior designs. The exhibition shows her drawings alongside sketches by Michael Graves, an American architect loosely affiliated with the group.
The exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery is an homage to the brief but intense era of the Memphis group, whose energy and creative drive have lost none of their fascination.

Publication date: 07.05.2021
Images: © Vitra Design Museum, Foto/photo: Bettina Matthiessen © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021