“A PARADIGM SHIFT IN DESIGN”: MEMPHIS DESIGN MOVEMENT + LONDON EXHIBITION

I am so thankful to live in an area surrounded by so many creative, talented and interesting people. One of those wonderful people is Keith Johnson, an Asbury Park resident who served as a key influencer for the early 1980’s Memphis design movement.

For the past two years, Johnson has assisted the curators of London’s Victoria & Albert museum with the current exhibition, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 to 1990, which prominently features Memphis and is the first in-depth survey of its kind. [more below]

This ‘Murmansk’ sterling silver fruit bowl, a popular Memphis piece.

“Keith has a terrific knowledge of key Memphis designs and has been among the exhibit’s most supportive and engaged,” said Glenn Adamson, curator. “He was a great source of information, ideas and stories as well as locating postmodern designs available for acquisition. It certainly would have been a very different show without him.”

I spoke with Johnson, owner of Urban Architecture, a decorative arts dealer in Brooklyn, regarding the Memphis design movement and upcoming exhibition.

TBP: What is “Memphis”?

Keith: Memphis is an intensely visual, highly decorative design movement that began in Italy in 1980. The designers wanted to reflect what the world was – high culture and low culture all mixed together. Some initially called it vulgar or kitsch but that didn’t last after the whole world fell in love with it.

TBP: How did Memphis come to be and how did the movement get its name?

Keith: In the late 1970’s modernism was becoming boring to everybody, especially many young Milanese designers.

So, in 1980, a group of young talents met in design guru Ettore Sottsass’ apartment to show each other their new designs for a new era. They had more than 300 beautiful drawings of sofas and chairs. They sat all night eating pizza and listening to music. At the same point Ettore put on a record, Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with Those Same Old Memphis Blues,” another designer asked what they should call the movement. Ettore pointed to the record and said “this is what we will call it – Memphis.”

Memphis reflected the US city, Elvis and rock and roll and the electronic age but it also referred to Memphis the ancient capital of Egypt. The name represented everything that happened for the last 5000 years.

The first collection was eye-popping. You would have a stunningly beautiful cabinet with a strangely covered wood veneer and columns made of gold leaf.

Asbury Park residents Keith Johnson and Celia Morrissette (far left and second from left) stand with Hans Hollein (Austrian Uber-Architecture, designer for MEMPHIS), Martine Bedin (original MEMPHIS designer), Peter Shire of California (original MEMPHIS designer) at the exhibition’s opening event.

TBP: How were you involved in the movement?

Keith: I was one of a handful of dealers who, in September 1981, happened to walk into that first Memphis show. I entered a revolution, a paradigm shift in design. For me, it was like seeing the Beatles on Jack Parr’s show and knowing that music would change forever. Looking at all the pieces, this was the first time in a generation that design became fun and accessible.

TBP: What is a good example of the movement?

Keith: The Murmansk silver fruit bowl with lightening bolt legs is eternally popular (see above photo). It is astonishing how beautiful it is in person, when you see the precision by which it is made. It is not just the concept or look of the piece but the execution of it. The designers chose the greatest craftspeople of Italy to make their pieces.

One of these fruitbowls sold at Christie’s auction three weeks ago for $15,000, which was double the pre-sale estimate. That was partly due to the Submodernism exhibit.

TBP: That’s the exhibition you and your fab wife, Celia, were involved with.

Keith: Postmodernism is a spectacular show if you are in London. It’s incredibly fascinating to see the next generation of Memphis collectors who are in their 30’s now. This was the last design style that wasn’t created on a Mac computer. It was my generation’s roaring 20’s. Memphis was the roaring 80’s.

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, continues until Jan. 15, 2012. Visit VAM.ac.uk for more.

For more examples of Memphis design, click here.

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