Ettore Sottsass for Knoll
Memphis Group founder Ettore Sottsass designed several pieces for Knoll, including the Eastside Lounge Collection. The compact, linear design continues the Midcentury Modern vernacular, with the round cushion on top adding a playful departure. Photo courtesy of Knoll.

Famously described as a “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fischer Price,” the Memphis Group features bold colors and irreverent designs in response to the clean lines and pristine aesthetic of Midcentury Modern. Still, there are some elements of continuity.

Made in Milan

Despite the name, the Memphis Group was actually based in Milan, Italy. The name apparently came from the Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Architect and versatile designer Ettore Sottsass founded the design collective in 1980. The group’s avant garde designs relied on geometric shapes and color, but with more pizzazz and a dose of irony and playfulness. Instead of MCM’s preference for symmetry, Memphis embraced asymmetry; rather than the modernist’s restraint, Memphis designs featured brazen combinations of bold colors.

Bel Air Chair by Peter Shire
Peter Shire’s Bel Air chair reflects how MCM and the Memphis Group’s shared reliance on geometrical shape and color gets reinterpreted with Memphis’ characteristic penchant for asymmetry, clashing colors and eccentricity. Photo by Jim Brown.

A member of the Memphis Group from Los Angeles, Peter Shire, provides a prime example with his Bel Air chair. The armchair’s asymmetrical design is in part inspired by the shape of a shark’s dorsal fin, and the one ball-shaped chair leg adds an element of tongue in cheek and unexpected.

Talking Back to MCM

Suburban kitsch, inexpensive material, geometry and color are common themes between the two movements. Sottsass had a brief stint working for George Nelson, and he created several designs for Knoll. Peter Shire, too, shares with MCM an admiration for Bauhaus. Sottsass described Memphis as the New International Style, and its brashness was meant to push forward what had become stale and impersonal. In Sottsass’ words, “Memphis’ function is to exist. Why should homes be static temples?”

Spyder table by Ettore Sottsass
At home in a modernist’s corporate office or home, Sottsass’s Spyder Table has a sleek profile with a playful touch. Photo courtesy of Knoll.

Both MCM and the Memphis Group set out to break the mold—it just so happened that for Memphis, the decades-long reign of MCM was that mold. While the Memphis movement itself did not have the longevity of MCM—the collective disbanded by the end of the 80s—the group’s provocative work interjected controversy and continued the design conversation.

Have we gotten you curious about the Memphis Group? Tour Memphis designer Peter Shire’s own home or read up on Ettore Sottsass himself.