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Memphis comes to Kensington.

 By Keith Johnson.

Keith Johnson, of New York’s Urban Architecture gallery, was an early importer and collector of Memphis pieces and, with his wife, Celia Morrissette, helpful in sourcing and gifting some of the selection of objects for the V&A’s Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 exhibition. His notes follow:

“Murmansk” drawing / Ettore Sottsass (study).

I FIRST FOUND OUT about the V&A postmodernism exhibition through an amazing young British designer, Bethann Laura Wood. My wife Celia and I were in London in 2008 at a private party for hot Spanish designer Jaime Hayon being held in the 18th century house at 33 Portland Place,  where they filmed The King’s Speech.

We were milling around a sea of young financial hipsters (who represent the new class of collectors today). Hayon had just installed his enormous porcelain chess installation that day (The Tournament) in Trafalgar Square, and it was the talk of London. Sweet little Bethann stood out like a sore thumb in her extraordinarily colourful layers of feminine garb (imagine Boy George at the height of his popularity) – she was pretty, magnetic, oblivious to the “hipster swells” and their caustic stares. What a moment!

Celia and I approached her, engaging her in a fantastic conversation – she was the coolest person in the room, other than Jaime himself – and she quickly confided in us her love of the Memphis Milano furniture movement of the ’80’s – and with her colour sense, who could doubt her? I told her I was (and still am) the principal Memphis dealer in America, and after she stopped screaming with joy, she exclaimed, “But Keith – the V&A is doing an exhibition on Memphis and postmodernism, and I know the curators! We have to put all of you together.”

And she did, God bless her! Within weeks, Glenn Adamson, Jane Pavitt (the Chief Curators of the exhibition) and I were fast friends.


“Cupola” lamp / Peter Shire.

I began my firm, Urban Architecture, in September of 1981, after attending the very first Memphis Milano exhibition in Milan, Italy. I had been vacationing in Europe, deciding at my younger brother Craig’s prompting to visit Milan to see the Salone del Mobile Internazionale – the Furniture Fair! I walked into it completely accidentally!

It was not only an epiphany-like moment in my life, but Memphis’ participation in (yet outside of) the formal Salone Week was one of the most important moments in modern design – a paradigm shift, if you will. Before Memphis, there was only the International Style (Modernism) – glass, steel, neutral leather, minimal non-decorated objects. And then came Memphis. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Memphis. As Barbara Radice wrote, in Memphis: Research, Experiences, Result, Failures and Successes of New Design (Gruppo Editoriale Electa, Milano, 1984):

Memphis was born in 1981 on the initiative of Ettore Sottsass and a group of young Milanese architects and designers interested in exploring more up-to-date ways of home living and design. In three years of activity that have involved famous and unknown architects and designers from all over the world, Memphis has overturned the premises on which so-called Modern Design is based. Memphis has become an almost mythical symbol of New Design, the influence of which can now be seen in innumerable fields of production…

“Oceanic” lamp / Michele De Lucchi.

Barbara Radice’s observation came at about the same time Paul Goldberger was writing in The New York Times (on 14 October 1982:

It seemed in 1981, when reports of Memphis began to arrive from Milan, that this was to be nothing but a big put on, a kind of junk furniture design that existed to thumb its nose at bourgeois culture more than anything else. Now that the pieces have actually arrived in New York they turn out to be something else entirely, vastly more convincing as serious pieces than they appear to be in photographs.

They are absolutely wild and wonderful, but they are not nihilistic. They do not come out of a desire to tell us nothing means anything so let us forget serious ideas and just have a good time. They pieces emerge out of a careful attention to function, to materials and to practicality…in almost every case these chairs are comfortable, if visually shocking: the tables sensible, the bookshelves and chests practical…

Even furniture designer George Nelson, one of the founders of American Modernism, was moved to note (in April 1983) that “Memphis is not in any atlas. It is a state of the soul, the soul at the end of the 20th Century. If you didn’t know that the 20th Century had a soul, now you know.”


“Heisenberg” clock / George Sowden.

Decisions were made specifically, I was told, by committee – but mostly by the curators and the acquisitions committee.

The exhibition evolved, but it ultimately followed an extraordinary master installation plan by the exhibition architects, Kevin Carmody and Andy Groarke (of Carmody Groarke, Ltd., London), in concert with the wishes of curators Jane Pavitt and Glenn Adamson.

It was definitely organic.

Only seminal activities within the movement were considered – architecture (Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Hans Hollein, Michael Graves, Stanley Tigerman, Aldo Rossi, et al.), MTV and its ancillaries (Annie Lennox, Depeche Mode, Grace Jones, Talking Heads and David Byrne, Divo, New Order, et al.), cinema (Blade Runner), performance/music (Laurie Anderson), fashion (Commes des Garcons, Vivienne Westwood, et al.), graphics (Neville Brody, THE FACE Magazine, New Wave album covers, etc.), jewelry (Cleto Munari), design (Memphis Milano, Alchimia, Archizoom, etc.) and designers (Ettore Sottsass, Alessandro Mendini, Borek Sipek, Michael Graves, Aldo Rossi, Paolo Deganello) and on and on.

If it undermined or challenged Modernist conventions, it was in!

Compared to this, there has never been a postmodernist exhibition of any note. This was the first definitive survey – scholarly, inclusive, opinionated. Nothing before encapsulated the movement quite like this.This exhibition has (in itself) resulted in a new paradigm shift, a reassessment of old underlying postmodern assumptions and a new reassessment of current artistic activities. Ask: was Lady Gaga possible without Grace Jones and Boy George; Frank Gehry without Venturi, Sottsass, Mendini, Rossi et al?


“Murmansk” silver fruitbowl / Ettore Sottsass.

For the catalogue, Glenn and Jane often called upon me for quotes, clarifications, history, secrets, gossip of the day, etc. The section on the marketing of Memphis and postmodernism included an interesting paragraph about Urban Architecture, our methodology for selling these perplexing works, displaying them, finding and proselytizing new clients (especially in an unsolicited fashion). Their thoughts made a (young) old man feel young again.

My beautiful wife, Celia Morrissette, and I donated several important pieces to the exhibition and to the permanent V&A Collections. There were some fabulous Memphis table lights (Oceanic by Michele De Lucchi; Cupola by Peter Shire); a small clock (Heisenberg by George Sowden).

But particularly valuable and seminal to the entire Memphis furniture section of the exhibition was a very generous gift from Celia exclusively – the original study drawing for the Murmansk silver fruit-bowl by Ettore Sottsass (the most popular Memphis object of all!). The Museum considered this gift/acquisition to be absolutely critical to the entire display of postmodernist furniture – it clearly shows the gritty, single-minded approach to conjuring up such zeitgeist-like objects!


Did the exhibition reach any new conclusions about postmodernism? Hundreds. Essentially, that it was truly the fin-de-siecle style of our twentieth century, encapsulating the ancient (historical) and new (vanguard), high style and kitsch, the electronic age, rock’n’roll, plastic vs age-old craftsmanship – the true visual cacophony of our world today.

But more importantly, this stylish “fin-de-siecle” did not just pour over into the next century. This one roared into the next millennium. Who in human memory has ever experienced that?

Keith Rennie Johnson is the President and Director of Urban Architecture, Inc., in Brooklyn, NY. The gallery showcases important twentieth century visual and avant-garde decorative art. For more than 20 years, Urban Architecture has been the leading US dealer for Memphis Milano and Museo Alchimia.

Also in The Fortnightly Review: Postmodernism and history, by Anthony Howell.

More: Jonathan Glancey on Memphis in The Guardian (2001).


One Comment

  1. Nice article about Memphis from Keith Johnson. I bought a Memphis cabinet, Malabar, from him several years ago for my collection.

    Monday, 9 January 2012 at 22:39 | Permalink

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