Rebel Rebel

Memphis designers with Masanori Umeda’s Tawaraya Bed 1981. Courtesy Memphis Post Design Gallery. Photo © Studio Azzurro.

Fed up with the current climate? Feel a rebellious streak coming on? If you haven’t yet visited Memphis: Plastic Field, we encourage you to pop and see the perfect exhibition to explore going against the fun police. It seems like the perfect time for such an exhibition while we are surrounded by so many societal rules and we are excited to say that those lovely people at MK Gallery are offering our readers half price tickets at the bottom of this blog.

Founded by Ettore Sottsass Jr, ‘Memphis’  brought together a group of international young guns united in their desire to inject humour into the design world. Its debut collection at Milan’s Salone del Mobile in 1981 dropped a bomb on streamlined modernism by challenging notions of functionality and good taste.


  Freemont Ettore Sottsass 1985 Sideboard in reconstituted veneer, plastic laminate and wood with gold gift finish.Courtesy Memphis Srl

Memphis: Plastic Field explores the subversive and irreverent spirit of this group, bringing together over 150 of the collective’s most significant works whose bold and playful aesthetic pushed boundaries and sparked a new era in international design. The Memphis Group, aka Memphis Milano, exploded onto the design scene with a supernova of colour. Spearheaded by Ettore Sottsass Jr – who revolutionised the office in the Seventies and created the iconic Valentine typewriter – this group smooshed together Egypt, India, Pop Art, Wiener Werkstatte, Bauhaus and Art Deco, creating a ballsy, in your face aesthetic drawn from different styles and parts of the world. Like the Cubists, it was marmite and felt distasteful and uncomfortable to many.

Emerald Nathalie Du Pasquier 1985 Sideboard in wood and plastic laminate with mirror and drawer. Courtesy Memphis Srl

The product of a German speaking Austrian and Southern Italian, Ettore Sottsass knew all about mixing style and culture. His Italian architect father travelled widely after the First World War and was very much influenced by the Wiener Werkstatte which in turn influenced Bauhaus. Ettore Sottsass Jr’s time moving from Innsbruck to Vienna and a few places in between played a great part in the foundations of his design schooling. Not rich beginnings by any means, Sottsass grew up making toys, including his own bicycle. He was a proficient drawer and painter from a very young age. One of his most formative moments was when he saw Picasso’s Guernica, a painting about the Spanish Civil war that is so devoid of colour and yet so full of emotion that Sottsass understood from that very moment how colour had a powerful hold over people. He needed it like oxygen. And so just as the lipstick red Valentine typewriter pulled at the heartstrings, Memphis was not only designed to chuck a curve ball in but make interior design a whole lot more fun.

 “Carlton” by Ettore Sottsass 1981 – Memphis Milano Collection Room divide in plastic laminate Photo Credit Pariano Angelantonio Courtesy Memphis Srl

The name Memphis was taken from the Bob Dylan song Sottsass was playing in his apartment on Milan’s Via San Galdino at an initial brainstorm between founding members. The song was unpopular when it first came out and in homage to its unique sound, this fusion of Rock, Pop and the Blues, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” is said to have been playing on a loop at the first meeting.


  Venice Plastic Field installed at Fondazione Berengo, Venice 2018 photo credit Luca Miserocchi

Described as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price” by journalist Bertrand Pellegrinin in the San Francisco chronicle in 2012, the first Memphis Milano collection at Milan’s Salone del Mobile in 1981 stuck two fingers up at streamlined modernism by challenging notions of functionality and good taste with Bertie Bassett shapes and colours, unconventional design pairings and difficult to understand shapes . Colourful, kitsch and geometric, it drew on Pop Art, Bauhaus and Art Deco to create an entirely new aesthetic full of punch and vitality, materials like plastic laminate and terrazzo, previously used in kitchens and bathrooms, were suddenly incorporated into high-end furniture, and monochrome patterns of graphic shapes and squiggly lines paired with vivid yellow became an instant Memphis trademark.


Karl Lagerfeld in his Monte Carlo apartment.“Pierre” table by Sowden, “Riviera” chair by De Lucchi, “Treetops” lamp and “Suvrettabookcase by Sottsass.Ceramics by Matteo Thun. Memphis 1981.From the book Memphis, Research, Experience, Results, Failures and Successes of the New Designby Barbara Radice, ed Electa.Photo:JaquesSchumacher. Copyright Mode & Wohnen.

Founding member Martine Bedin wrote: “The same obsession always; can we imagine a new world by drawing another chair, another table, another light, another vase?” Derided by some design critics for being impractical and expensive, David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld bought collections in bulk with foresight, but it would take another forty years to really kick in to mainstream design thanks to the more Instagram driven millennials designers like Camille Wahala and Yinka Illori, shops like Darkroom, interior stars Two Lovely Gays as well as the C20 classic dealers and collectors who rediscovered it over the last ten years. Original pieces now fetch tens of thousands of pounds which just goes to show that imagining a new world by subverting the rules can pay dividends in the end.

 ‘Memphis’ prioritises the sensory quality of the object over function. You will feel like you have entered Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory or had a dose of Ayahuaska at this exhibition as clashing materials like plastic laminate and Terrazzo, previously used in kitchens and bathrooms, are seen incorporated into high-end furniture. Monochrome stripes and zigzags, graphic shapes and squiggly Keith Haring style stubbies paired with vivid yellow, the Memphis trademark, mess with your mind.

Peter, Peter Shire, 1987 Sideboard in lacquered wood, plastic laminate and metal. Courtesy Memphis Srl

Milton Keynes, home of the decorated concrete cow, seems like the perfect place to host this exhibition. Like Memphis it too has taken a while to be fully appreciated by the masses. Designed originally as a central business and shopping district to supplement local centres embedded in most of its grid system, planners in the 70s worked with top architects including Norman Foster and Henning Larsen. Not wanting Milton Keynes to be quite like anywhere else planners at the time were said to be “plugged in” to avant garde design and radical urban theory. Domus was one magazine seen around the office. But it became mall-land in the Eighties and was seen more as a place to go shopping than hang out and take in some culture.

Needless to say MK Gallery has risen like a phoenix from the ashes with exhibitions by hugely respected artists including Paula Rego and Mike Nelson. And this exhibition is no small feat. The 150 plus pieces garnered from collectors of the Memphis Group includes work by designers Shiro Kuramata, Michele De Lucchi, Nathalie Du Pasquier, Martine Bedin, George Sowden, Michael Graves, Javier Mariscal, Marco Zanini, Aldo Cibic and Peter Shire.

“Ettore thought that design should help people become more aware of their existence: the space they live in, how to arrange it and their own presence in it,” explained his wife Barbara Radice in an interview with Artsy. “That was the core of Ettore.”


Memphis: Plastic Field on now until the 12 September 2021

For half price tickets simply use the code M50 at checkout before the end of August.

MK Gallery, 900 Midsummer Blvd, Milton Keynes MK9 3QA


MK Gallery is part of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio and a member of the Plus Tate network.  Inspired by the unique history of Milton Keynes, MK Gallery, designed by renowned architects 6a in collaboration with artists Gareth Jones and Nils Norman, is an iconic feature of Milton Keynes skyline. The Sky Room offers stunning views over Campbell Park and beyond while bringing the best contemporary film, experimental concerts, thought provoking lectures and a range of comedy nights to the city centre and the view of the building looking back from Campbell Park should not be missed when you visit either.

Changing exhibitions of international art sit across five large, beautiful gallery spaces in MK Gallery and a programme called The Project Space created for, and by members of the local community hopes to inspire educators, artists, groups and local residents to explore different forms of creative learning together. There are regular creative workshops for families and adjacent to the building is an artist designed play area – open 365 days a year for children to play, learn and enjoy.

What to see in and around Milton Keynes while you are there and facts about MK  

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