Until his collection came to light for this year’s Sotheby’s sale, nobody knew quite how extensive Bowie’s collection of Memphis Design Group was. When I caught wind of it I was thrilled to see so much of it in one place, along with the chance to actually go and view it up close and personal in Sotheby’s Bond Street galleries.
I’m pretty certain I’ve always loved Memphis design and yet I think I must have looked at it at some point, probably in the late 90’s, and thought ‘that is hideous and so OLD FASHIONED’. The mid-century style illustrations in children’s books that were still hanging around through my 80’s childhood provoked the same response and yet now I absolutely love them. It’s strange what time does to personal taste.
Now I look at this work and I’m completely in love. It humour, optimism and cheekiness have stood the test of time and are now firmly back in fashion; you can see elements of it all over the high street, in illustration and fashion print design.
For some reason I was really expecting the work to show its age and that’s probably because my personal experience of formica was very far removed from the pinnacle of Italian furniture design, think more along the lines of Argos Black Ash television units.
One piece, the ‘Casablanca’ cabinet by Sottsass, does ring bells of ancient recognition. I do remember seeing a picture of this way back and thinking ‘who the hell would want that in their house?!’. The angles jutting about all over the place like a flailing cactus. The garish clashing primary colours. The itchy-looking surface print! If Memphis is anything it is divisive, people tend to love it or hate it. However when I started to recognise the influences – Art Deco, 50’s diners, formica patterns, Constructivism – well, hell it’s absolutely everything I love. Throw in a huge bucketful of 80’s styling and I’m sold. There are only select pieces I could live with though, as Bowie himself said ‘Even now the jolt, the impact created by walking into a room containing a cabinet by Memphis – the Carlton, for instance – is visceral. It’s true that you can’t put another piece of furniture within the same space. There is just no aesthetic room. All networks of proposition are trammelled by this one item. Terrific’. Terrific! Love you Bowie.
By the mid to late 80s the style had trickled down to every day life; I had a Memphis-style pencil from Woolworths. Its sense of colour and fun permeated all aspects of design, from fashion print to record cover art and became part of the post-modern vernacular. It’s seems only fitting that it should come back again, now more than ever the world needs an injection of irreverence and humour.
THIS is a link to the Sotheby’s Live talk with Martine Bedine, one of the original Memphis Group members who talks with fondness about the groups beginnings and ways of working. You can view the entire sale catalogue here.
I have an ongoing Memphis Style pinterest board where I hoard anything that strikes me as Memphis-like, which of course is my own personal opinion. You can follow me here.