MK Gallery showcases work by the influential and divisive Memphis group

Iconic pieces from the Memphis group are brought together at a Milton Keynes exhibition that celebrates the movement in all its plastic and terrazzo glory

Hosted at MK Gallery in the UK until 25 April 2021, Memphis: Plastic Field features more than 150 objects created by the collective – which was founded by Italian designer Ettore Sottsass in 1980 – including work by Nathalie Du Pasquier, George Sowden, Michael Graves, Marco Zanini and Shiro Kuramata, among others.

The Memphis group showed its first designs in 1981, raising eyebrows for its use of materials not usually associated with ‘high end’ furniture, such as laminate and terrazzo. Memphis furniture is almost cartoonish in appearance, featuring exaggerated shapes and splashes of squiggly pattern and colour – incorporated as a reaction to more sedate mid century design.

Installation views at MK Gallery

In an interview with Metropolis, Nathalie Du Pasquier claimed the movement was “totally misunderstood in the sense that it was taken for a joke – that the serious thinking was part of Modernism, and because what we were doing was in reaction against that, it meant we were not serious … but all of this was extremely serious to us.”

Despite the collective’s ambitions, Memphis design only enjoyed limited success at the time – bar a few high profile fans such as David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld, who bought the entire collection and then sold it in 1991. However, it has enjoyed a resurgence in interest in recent years, with many Memphis designs now commanding high prices at auction.

Karl Lagerfeld’s Monte Carlo apartment by Jaques Schumacher, copyright Mode & Wohne
Burundi by Nathalie Du Pasquier, 1981. Photo: Aldo Ballo, Guido Cegani, Peter Ogilvie

Photographer Dennis Zanone, who at one point claimed to have the biggest collection of Memphis design in the US, told Art News that the objects might look childish to some, but are surprisingly practical, and a way of encouraging people to “rethink our nations and concepts of what design is – not whether it is good or bad”. He described the experience of living surrounded by Memphis objects as “fun and a bit frenetic at times”.

Visitors to Memphis: Plastic Field can experience a short-lived version of this at the show, with the chance to size up some iconic examples such as Sottsass’s Carlton bookcase and Tahiti lamp, textile designs by Du Pasquier and George Sowden’s D’Antibes cabinet.

Memphis: Plastic Field is at MK Gallery until 25 April, 2021;