The Memphis Group

Do you know the Memphis Group?

No, the Memphis Group is not a new band out of Nashville–although it takes its name from a Bob Dylan song.

Architect and designer Ettore Sottsass founded the Memphis Group (or, simply “Memphis”) in Milan, Italy in 1981.  Michael Graves,  Alessandro Mendini, Andrea Branzi, Matteao Thun, Michele de Lucchi , Shiro Kuramata, Arato Isozaki, Nathalie du Pasquier, George Sowden and Hans Hollein were all members, among others. They designed Post-Modern furniture, fabrics, ceramics, glass and metal objects from 1981-1987.

While Memphis made a splash at their debut in 1981 at the Salone del Mobile of Milan,  many others are said to have loathed their work.  Tastemaker Deborah Needleman recently stated in T Magazine  that it was “the style I’ve always cringed at the most,” allowing that now, however, Memphis’s designs seem “cheerfully earnest and playfully rigorous.”

Ettore Sottsass in 2006

Ettore Sottsass in 2006

You be the judge.

Characteristics of the Memphis Group

The Guardian newspaper, in 2011, described the Memphis Group’s designs as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price.”  Their furniture and home accessories are highly colorful and feature asymmetrical shapes.  The Memphis Group also employed new technologies with their use of plastic laminates.   Earlier styles particularly the Art Deco movement and 1950’s Kitsch influenced the Memphis Group, but futuristic themes also held sway.  Author Judith Gura in her book, Design After Modernism, states that their work “was meant for shock value as much as use,” and they “often tossed functionalism aside.”  Essentially she adds that the Memphis designers intended “to poke fun at more conventional objects.”

Take a look at some of  Memphis’ designs:


Contemporary Influence

Contemporary designers have taken notice.  Memphis inspired Christian Dior’s 2011-2012 Fall/Winter haute couture collection (seen in the first photo).   Hot Brit product designer, Lee Broom’s Hoop Chair recall the Memphis “First” chair seen above.


Contemporary furniture designer Matthew Sullivan claims in T Magazine that he is striving to create “a more palatable version of Memphis that can harmonize with any interior style.”  His work riffs on shapes such as Greek columns and ziggurats that recall the unique forms of Memphis,  but it is distinguished by his use of natural materials like wood and marble. Plus he employs a much more subdued palette.

Matthew Sullivan’s Memphis inspired, product designs

Matthew Sullivan’s Memphis inspired, product designs

What Do You Think of Memphis?

In my opinion, a room full of Memphis is an assault to the senses, although Karl Lagerfeld had one.


T Magazine  featured arguably tasteful interiors that incorporated Memphis.  First, President Gerald Ford’s home is on the cover with a Memphis light front and center. What an eclectic mix!


The tasteful nature of the second home is not a surprise to me.  Nicolas Ghesquiere’s Memphis choices–a console by founder Ettore Sottsasss and a pair of chairs by Shiro Kuramata-found in his Paris apartment exude elegance.   That lovely 1940s mirror certainly helps.  Ghesquiere’s selections feature subtle colors and employ natural materials more akin to Sullivan’s work than the standard Memphis fare.

Nicolas Ghesquiere’s Paris apartment

Nicolas Ghesquiere’s Paris apartment

So what do you think of this revival?  Are you ready to jump on the Memphis bandwagon?

A little bit of Memphis, easily changed.

A little bit of Memphis, easily changed.

Photo credits: Dior.  Lee Broom’s Hoop chair from dezeen. Room full of Memphis from wikipedia.  Matthew Sullivan’s designs from his website.  Ettore Sottsass from the New York Times.  Nails.  Memphis collage: Poster  Lido Sofa  First Chair  Michele De Lucchi designed “Lido”, a colorful sofa, and, in 1983, the “First” chair for Memphis.  Modern Super Lamp Bookcase/cabinet by Ettore Sottsass  Textiles by Nathalie du Pasquier & George Sowden Vanity by Michael Graves  Memphis Lamp by designed by Michele De Lucchi   Chair by Alessandro Mendini.  Gura quote page 99 of  her book,  Design After Modernism.