Trashy, eclectic and collectible: Memphis and the joy of bad taste

Memphis was a firework. Launched with a bang in 1981, with a party in Milan with 2,500 guests, it glittered and popped until its fragments fell to earth in 1987. Which possibly was always the plan, if there had been a plan. Memphis never sought immortality, nor the establishment of eternal verities to rule design for ever. It was about life lived in the moment – to the extent that inanimate objects can communicate such a thing – about the freedom to create and make mistakes.

David Bowie, an avid collector of the design collective’s work, spoke of “the jolt, the impact, created by walking into a room containing a cabinet by Memphis”. Its effect was, as he said, “visceral”, at least when it started. But its ice-cream colours, its doo-wop-Mesopotamian-Picasso-deco-iconic-ironic wonky eclecticism had, by the time it wound down, become a cliche of advertising agency reception areas and the style of homes of the evil rich in Hollywood comedies.

Memphis was conceived, the story goes, on a night fuelled by tobacco and alcohol and music in the small Milan apartment of the writer and critic Barbara Radice. Her husband, the sixtysomething Ettore Sottsass, acted as godfather and ringmaster to this group of mostly young designers. Founding members and later collaborators were, while mostly Italian, also multinational: Nathalie Du Pasquier and Martine Bedin from France, George Sowden from Britain, Peter Shire from Los Angeles, Shiro Kuramata from Japan. They didn’t have a manifesto, and everyone did their own thing, but their work was exhibited and marketed together, and they shared knowledge on the manufacturing of their designs.

An easy and true thing to say about Memphis is that it was a reaction to the by then stale doctrines of the modern movement. The energy of the Bauhaus had decayed into corporate refinement. Good design was considered to be the elegant handling of high-quality industrial materials such as stainless steel and glass. Memphis embraced bad taste. Jasper Morrison, later famous as a much more restrained designer, would recall the “cold sweat” and “shock and panic” induced by his first encounter with Memphis products, but also the feeling that you were “immediately freed by the sort of total rule-breaking”.

Memphis was promiscuous in its influences: India, Africa, California, gas stations, movies, music, art. Its name – ancient Egypt and Elvis – summed it up. And it was crafted rather than mass-produced: for all its apparent trashiness it relied on the considerable skills of the Italian workshops that made its products.

All of which is on display at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. It’s a nice setting for the work, this new city which in the 1970s and 80s was trying – with a mirror-glass shopping centre and ecological homes – to work out its own version of what the modern world might be. The most famous Memphis pieces are here, such as Masanori Umeda’s Tawaraya, a boxing-ring-shaped bed. Or, rather, more than a bed – “a sanctuary”, as he put it, “in which to think about life, the void, the sky or sadness; a place for a celebration, a party, a season or joy; a place for talking, pleasure, wisdom or for a banquet; and finally a bed for the night, for love, for the heart or to dream”.

Design exhibitions can be dry, but the energy of the work carries the day. There are no drawings, no insights into the processes of design and making, just colourful, vibrant, libidinous stuff, nicely arranged by Isabella Invernizzi and Beatrice Bonzanigo of the exhibition designers IB Studio. They have taken strong Memphis patterns, originally developed for plastic laminates, and made them into the layouts of each gallery, which is a random but effective device. Black artificial shrubs punctuate the space, helping to make a landscape of un-natural nature at one with Memphis’s celebrations of the synthetic.

A long axis runs from one end of the galleries to another, terminated as if by obelisks in a baroque garden by two memorable works of Sottsass. These are a sideboard called Casablanca and a room divider called Carlton, robotic and anthropomorphic, with the qualities of both early video games and tribal totems. Their surfaces are the animate laminates beloved of Memphis, in which what had been the material of cheap kitchen counters was made exotic by patterns of mottled polychrome, part of an animal-mineral chain of being that ran from leopard skin to granite.

There is a long box of dark sand in which rest vases and bowls, by Sottsass, Marco Zanini and Michele De Lucchi, where the ancient techniques of Murano glass-blowers were combined – potentially heretically – with the modern use of glue. “What difference does it make?” asked Sottsass. “Isn’t the culture of glue an invention just like the culture of glass?”

Not all Memphis furniture is particularly useful. There are elaborate storage units that wouldn’t allow you to store more than the odd vase. As in most exhibitions, you can’t sit on the exhibits, but some may not be all that comfortable. There are some duds, ideas that don’t quite come off, but then the group’s freedoms included the freedom to fail. It has been said that if you have one Memphis piece in a domestic interior, it’s hard for any other furniture to go with it, but in the larger spaces of an art gallery they make a companionable enough crowd.

Another easy thing to say about Memphis is that it captured the consumerism of the 1980s, the collapse of the high-minded social ideals of modernism into shopping. There’s truth in this too, and it was the media-marketing circus around Memphis that caused Sottsass to start edging away as early as 1985. Crafted as they were, Memphis pieces were mostly luxury items. They are now collectibles, fetching large sums in auction houses.

But there’s something greater than this to be seen in the rooms of MK Gallery. It’s the spirit that you can be frivolous and serious at once – that, as in the films of Fellini or Tinto Brass, profundity and kitsch can coexist; that in the face of the cold war’s threat of nuclear doom, defiant pleasure could be had. Also that extravagant creativity doesn’t just have to be an ego trip, but can be generous, involving and witty.

Joy, you could call it. We could do with some of that right now.