The Memphis Group: On the Rise Once Again


James Evanson was a young, up-and-coming artist when a new design collective called Memphis emerged out of Italy. Founded in 1980 by Italian architect Ettore Sottsass—along with Alessandro Mendini, Aldo Cibic, Michael Graves, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, Peter Shire, Matteo Thun, Javier Mariscal, and Barbara Radice, among others—Memphis aimed to revitalize what they considered a moribund design industry by stating, “Form does not have to follow function anymore”: a complete departure from the modernist precepts of the previous generation.

Ettore Scottsass, founder of The Memphis Group

Influenced by Art Deco and, especially, Pop Art, Memphis began creating furniture which was irrational in structure, and often unusable, but intentionally so. The pieces featured bright colors and free-form, organic shapes, and—in another deviation from traditional modernist materials such as metal, wood, glass, and leather—utilized unorthodox, and often cheap, materials like plastic. To promote their ideas, the collective mounted several shows of their designs, in which they invited other like-minded designers to participate, among them James Evanson, who incorporated an expanded range of material into his work, notably metal.

Chair designed by one of the original Memphis Group designers, Alessandro Mendini

The reaction to the group’s designs was both swift and polarizing, with opinions on one hand praising their unique aesthetic, and on the other harshly criticizing them for impracticality. However, the Memphis aesthetic has been making a comeback over the past few years, and is now celebrated for its pioneering nature.

In 2011, the Memphis Group’s trademark patterns entered the mainstream market with Christian Dior’s Fall line.

The V&A Museum in London exhibited “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion” in 2012, which revisited the group’s work and influence, while original group members Nathalie du Pasquier and Peter Shire each appeared on the retail market: du Pasquier with a Memphis-influenced line for the fashion brand American Apparel, and Shire with his original 1985 jewelry designs for the Cooper Hewitt SHOP in Manhattan.

Memphis Group-inspired collection from American Apparel

A brooch from the Peter Shire Jewlery collection

Additionally, Koenig & Clinton and the Joe Sheftel Gallery partnered to mount recent month-long exhibitions of vintage Memphis work at their respective New York spaces. The press release for the shows included a quote from Ettore Sottsass which beautifully articulates the Memphis philosophy, and also serves as a fitting close here: “It is no coin­ci­dence that the peo­ple who work for Mem­phis don’t pur­sue a meta­physic aes­thetic idea or an absolute of any kind, much less eter­nity. Today every­thing one does is con­sumed. [Mem­phis] is ded­i­cated to life, not to eter­nity.”


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