Meet the Memphis Group, the Bob Dylan-Inspired Designers of David Bowie’s Favorite Furniture

David Bowie, in his years at Brom­ley Tech­ni­cal High School before becom­ing David Bowie, stud­ied not just music but art and design as well. Despite becom­ing a rock star, he nev­er for­got about the impor­tance of the visu­al, a sen­si­bil­i­ty man­i­fest in the per­for­mances he put on, the per­son­ae he assumed, and the music videos in which he starred right up until his death ear­li­er this year. After his suc­cess, the artist also became a full-fledged art con­nois­seur, and next month Sothe­by’s will hold Bowie/Collector, a series of three auc­tions “encom­pass­ing over 350 works from the pri­vate col­lec­tion of the leg­endary musi­cian.”

The first two auc­tions will sell Bowie’s mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art; the third will focus entire­ly on his col­lec­tion of fur­ni­ture and oth­er pieces of design by Ettore Sottsass and the Mem­phis Group. Even if you haven’t heard of the Mem­phis Group, you’ve cer­tain­ly seen their fur­ni­ture. “It’s Pee-Wee’s Play­house meets Mia­mi Vice,” in the words of Alis­sa Walk­er at Giz­mo­do. “It’s Saved By The Bell plus Beetle­juice.” As the post­mod­ern wing of the 1980s Art Deco revival, Mem­phis “com­bined overt­ly geo­met­ric shapes from a vari­ety of mate­ri­als in bright, con­trast­ing col­ors. Graph­ic pat­terns — usu­al­ly black and white — were not unusu­al.”


Image by Zanone, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Mem­phis, whose influ­ence has extend­ed far beyond the move­men­t’s offi­cial life­time of 1981 to 1988, began “when Ettore Sottsass, one of Italy’s archi­tec­tur­al grandees, met with a group of younger archi­tects in his apart­ment on Milan’s Via San Galdino,” accord­ing to Design Muse­um. (Sot­tass had made his name with, among oth­er things, Olivet­ti’s bright-red Valen­tine portable type­writer.) “They were there to dis­cuss Sottsass’ plans to pro­duce a line of fur­ni­ture with an old friend, Ren­zo Bru­go­la, own­er of a car­pen­try work­shop,” an idea that turned into “an exu­ber­ant two-fin­gered salute to the design estab­lish­ment after years in which col­or and dec­o­ra­tion had been taboo.”

Why call it Mem­phis? Dur­ing the meet­ing, the group put on Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Mem­phis Blues Again),” which gave Sot­tass the inspi­ra­tion. “Every­one thought it was a great name,” wrote Mem­phis mem­ber, and lat­er Mem­phis chron­i­cler, Bar­bara Radice, with its evo­ca­tions of “Blues, Ten­nessee, rock’n’roll, Amer­i­can sub­urbs, and then Egypt, the Pharoahs’ cap­i­tal, the holy city of the god, Ptah.” This aes­thet­ic foment even­tu­al­ly pro­duced such items found in the Bowie col­lec­tion as Michele de Luc­chi’s Flamin­go side table, Peter Shire’s Bel Air arm­chair, Achille and Pier Gia­co­mo Cas­tiglion­i’s friend­ly-look­ing radio-phono­graph, and Sot­tass’ own Carl­ton room divider, the most pop­u­lar Mem­phis object and one still made today.

Always aes­thet­i­cal­ly polar­iz­ing, Mem­phis has under­gone a bit of a revival in recent years: younger design­ers have looked to the group for ideas, and its sur­viv­ing mem­bers have heard a new call for their spe­cial brand of bold col­ors and strik­ing geom­e­try. In the video at the top of the post, gal­lerists Leo Koenig, Mar­garet Liu Clin­ton, and Joe Shef­tel show and tell about Mem­phis, and in the sub­se­quent videos you can learn more about Sottsass’ life and times and the mem­o­ries of Mem­phis design­er Mattheo Thun. Call the fruits of the Mem­phis Group’s labors dat­ed if you like — “it just looks like the 80s,” writes Walk­er — but they’re dat­ed, like many a Bowie or Dylan record, in the best way: unde­ni­ably time-stamped, yet some­how always fresh.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bauhaus, Mod­ernism & Oth­er Design Move­ments Explained by New Ani­mat­ed Video Series

Charles & Ray Eames’ Icon­ic Lounge Chair Debuts on Amer­i­can TV (1956)

David Bowie Paper Dolls Recre­ate Some of the Style Icon’s Most Famous Looks

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.