Memphis Comes to Memphis

Furniture with flair from 1980s Milan.

photography courtesy Dennis Zanone and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens

By now I hope most everyone has read or heard about — or better yet seen — the Dixon Gallery and Gardens’ Memphis-Milano: 1980s Italian Design show, which opened on April 13th. If not, happily you’ll have plenty of time, as the exhibit runs until mid-July.

The Dixon show is a retrospective look at the famously flamboyant furniture and other household objects produced in Milan, Italy, in the 1980s by a design movement that took on a name we can all appreciate — “Memphis.” It began in 1981 when Italian architect Ettore Sottsass gathered together a group of young international designers and architects, who produced fantastic original pieces distinguished by their bright colors, unique and inventive shapes, and the use of unexpected industrial materials.

Kevin Sharp, the Dixon’s director, characterizes the objects that the “Memphis” movement produced as “radical reinterpretations of familiar forms, forms that were as smart as they were surprising.” Visitors to this eye-popping show will be both amazed — and amused — by the sheer volume of pieces on display: 150 vibrant, iconic works, including sofas, chairs, bookshelves, lamps, ceramics and glass objects. 

And what makes the Dixon’s Memphis-Milano show so extra special is that all of the pieces are drawn from the private collection of a Memphis connoisseur — well-known professional photographer Dennis Zanone.

This most playful of design styles mirrored the bold culture of the 1980s and is now synonymous with postmodern design. The “Memphis” movement took its name from the Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Local photographer/filmmaker Willy Bearden was quoted recently as saying, “Memphis cool is what most people aspire to,” and Kevin Sharp, the Dixon director, would certainly agree, noting that “being here in the city from which these great Memphis designers claimed their name” definitely adds to the show’s delights. 

Dana Holland-Beickert, Memphis arts appraiser and guest curator of the exhibition, has written the catalogue for this particular show, putting the Memphis movement in its European context. She notes that Milan was a design mecca after World War II — a city where modernism was in full swing. At the same time, more radical design groups were challenging the sleek, monochromatic look of the day. The Memphis designers flouted convention with the thinking that merely because a piece was meant to be a chair didn’t mean it had to actually look like one. (As you see from the photographs, these Italian “Memphians” were definitely true to their averred philosophy!)

Members of the Memphis design group gave each of their unique pieces special names, many of which were derived from luxury bars, restaurants, and hotels, i.e., look for the “Hilton” trolley cart in the exhibit. For the most part, these handmade designs were produced in limited quantities, although the chair named “First” in the current exhibit, with its “way out,” solar-system look, was the Memphis group’s most popular item, with some 5,000 being made.

The group’s founder Ettore Sottsass’ first claim to fame came in the 1960s, when he was design consultant for Olivetti, the prominent Italian typewriter manufacturer, where he worked to turn routine office equipment into artifacts of popular culture. He left Olivetti to form his own group in the 1970s, saying, “I didn’t want to do any more consumerist products, because it was clear that the consumerist attitude was quite dangerous.” But as the next decade passed, as Holland-Beickert explains, Sottsass began to consider his own movement to be a fad, realizing that “we can’t do avant garde forever.” 

And so it was that, after having produced 300 pieces, the Memphis group was disbanded in 1988. Yet on the other hand, Holland-Beickert emphasizes that Memphis designs, though only produced for a relatively small period in time, have indeed stood the test of time and have continued to influence fashion as well as interior and graphic design to the present day. 

I had the chance to talk to collector Dennis Zanone before the show opened, and of course wanted to know the back story of how he had amassed what surely is one of the most comprehensive collections of Memphis-designed pieces in the country and the world. As a photographer, of course, Zanone is no stranger to creativity and design; Dennis explains how his brother Don, a publisher of Glass Quarterly Magazine, who lives in New York City, encouraged him to start collecting Memphis-Milano design. 

Thus when Dennis saw a 1984 touring exhibit at the Brooks Museum on the then-contemporary Memphis movement, the Sottsass style captured his imagination. A passion was born, as Zanone began acquiring pieces in European and American auction houses, and of course on eBay. As a point of interest, Zanone told me that famed French designer Karl Lagerfeld had a major collection of Memphis pieces that was auctioned off in the 1990s. 

Zanone says he is really “more of a minimalist,” but that is a difficult premise to believe when you look at the Memphis pieces in situ in the great room at his house (see above). In fact, catalogue author Holland-Beickert confirmed to me laughingly that, when brides arrive at the Zanone studio for a photo session and pass through his house, “their eyes are wide open in astonishment.” As for Dennis himself, he says his collection “makes me smile every day,” though he adds that in fact his upstairs living area is outfitted with more conventional vintage furniture.

I think everyone will agree that these Memphis pieces are witty, humorous, and whimsical. They are reminiscent of colorful children’s playthings — Tinkertoys come to mind. Alice in Wonderland’s famed saying, “curiouser and curiouser,” also well applies. In this connection, Chantal Drake, director of communications at the Dixon, insists that visitors should “bring your children,” as there is a children’s interactive “discovery” room in connection with the exhibit. Even adults — as they tour the exhibit — can play a guessing game of trying to identify what each object is before reading the signage.

It’s worth mentioning as well that the Memphis Garden Club, a member of the Garden Club of America, organized its major 2014 biennial showcase of floral design around the works of art presented at the Dixon in the Memphis-Milano exhibition. Held in early April, this wonderful free flower show was outstanding because, as the organizers explained, the “Memphis” design collection consists of bold geometric shapes, primary colors and strong forms, all of which called for creative, sculptural constructions that went far beyond what we normally think of as floral arrangements. (Memphian Allison Braswell won the best-in-show prize, as well as the novice class competition, with a floral interpretation of her assigned inspiration piece “The Max Sideboard.”)

Thanks are due to the Dixon exhibition’s sponsors, Karen and Dr. Prescott Dorsett, Liz and Tommy Farnsworth, Nancy and Steve Morrow, and Armstrong Relocation & Companies for helping bring the Memphis-Milano show to the public. To sum up, these “Memphis” designs are groundbreaking and they continue to influence the design world, but for the layman, perhaps above all here in this city, this show is fun. The perfect venue for a May outing that includes this excellent exhibition, a walk in the Dixon’s gardens, and (if you go on a Friday) a fine picnic lunch from an on-site food truck.  

Dennis Zanone’s photographs can be viewed at

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