Design: Vitra Design Museum celebrates 40 years of Memphis


Design: Vitra Design Museum celebrates 40 years of Memphis

From 4 February 2021, Vitra Design Museum features the exhibition “Memphis 40 Years of Kitsch and Elegance”. Memphis, which enjoyed great success in the 1980s, was nevertheless a controversial phenomenon in the panorama of Italian design; the group’s declared aim was to overcome the dictates of functionalism, celebrate the banality of every day, and break the taboos of good taste.

The group’s first collection, presented at Milan’s Arc’74 Gallery in September 1981, was an international event. Characterized by garish colors and wild patterns, the Memphis designs seemed to have walked straight off the pages of a comic book and gave rise to a completely new look in which popular culture, advertising aesthetics, and post-modernism merged in a crazy medley. The design philosophy of Memphis was also influenced by the emergence of the information society; like television and computers, Memphis objects were meant to communicate with the viewer and tell their own unique story.
The initiative for forming the group and its philosophy came from the established Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass, who started experimenting with sculptural pieces of furniture in the 1960s, applying colorful plastic laminates to creations called »totems«. The chair ‘Seggiolina da Pranzo‘ (Lunch Chair), which he designed for Studio Alchimia in 1978, also features the patterned laminate that was to become a Memphis trademark.

cover: The Memphis team posing on bed ‘Masanori’ by Umeda Tawaraya, 1981, © Masanori Umeda, © Studio Azzurro, with kind permission of Memphis, Milano,


Ettore Sottsass, ‘Seggiolina da pranzo’, for Studio Alchimia,1978

For a number of young designers, the Memphis group became a platform and springboard to launch their careers and achieve international acclaim; Matteo Thun and Michele De Lucchi, for example, continue to be active in international industrial design. Next to De Lucchi’s ‘Kristall’ table (1981), the exhibition will also show the chair ‘First’ (1983), which is remarkable for the spherical objects mounted on its armrests to encircle the seated person like planets. De Lucchi’s ‘Riviera’ chair from 1981, anticipates the pastel colors the designer was to use some years later in a series of experimental household appliances for Philips. This highlights the speed at which Memphis ideas entered everyday aesthetics and contributed to making 1980s design brighter and playful.


Sottsass Associati, Interior for an exhibition on Italian Design in Tokyo, 1984.© Photo: Mariarosa Ballo © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021 for all designs by Ettore Sottsass.

The exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the group’s foundation through its creations, presenting furniture, lamps, drawings, sketches, and photographs. The exhibition includes works by such well-known members as Ettore Sottsass, Michele De Lucchi, Martine Bedin, Michael Graves, Barbara Radice, Peter Shire, Nathalie Du Pasquier, and Shiro Kuramata.


Ettore Sottsass, lamp ‘Ashoka’, 1981, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021, © Vitra Design Museum, photo: Andreas Jung

VDM-Memphis-de Lucchi-First-chair

Michele de Lucchi, chair »First«, 1983, © Michele de Lucchi, © Vitra Design Museum
Jürgen Hans


Shiro Kuramata, ‘Kyoto’, 1983, © Shiro Kuramata, © Vitra Design Museum, photo: Jürgen Hans


Peter Shire, armchair »Bel-Air«, 1982, © Peter Shire, © Vitra Design Museum
photo: Jürgen Hans


George Sowden, drawing of an interior, 1983, Vitra Design Museum, © George Sowden


Karl Lagerfeld’s Monte Carlo Apartment with designs by Memphis, Monaco, 1982.
© Jacques Schumacher, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021 for all designs by Ettore Sottsass.

Pictures: courtesy of Vitra Design Museum –

‘Memphis 40 Years of Kitsch and Elegance’
temporary exhibition
6 February 2021 / 23 January 2022
Vitra Design Museum

Weil am Rhein, Germany

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