David Bowie’s Post-Modernist Space Oddities

ArtGeek.art
6 min readMar 6, 2023

at the Modernism Museum Mount Dora

Stanhope, 1982, Michael Graves. Bed in bird’s eye maple veneer, lacquered wood, mirrors and lamps in brass

From the Renaissance through the mid-19th century, Western artists applied the logic of perspective in their work and were judged by their skill in reproducing reality. But fundamental changes in technology, science and philosophy were occurring by the end of the 19th century, inducing a series of new aesthetic movements. Some were longer-lived than others. Some built off what went before while others unabashedly rejected what had gone before. The Memphis Design Group did both.

By 1980, some designers were chafing under the yoke of the restrained lines and minimal color palette of modernism. In December of that year, in Milan, Ettore Sottsass called together a group of colleagues to confront the rigidity of post-war design, especially the streamlined, circumspect design of the 1970s, and its focus on function over form.

1970s Schreiber Sideboard

We can only image the spiritedness of this gathering in Sottsass’ small apartment, with the Bob Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again playing on repeat, an undoubtedly endless supply of wine, and enthusiastic talk of a design revolution. Sottsass wanted to bring out the ‘radical, funny and outrageous’ in a melding of Art Deco lines, pop art color, 1950s kitsch, and futuristic themes.

The founding Memphis group on Masanori Umeda’s Tawaraya Boxing Ring Bed

Everyone left the meeting intent on coming up with ideas. Three months after that first gathering, the group met again, bringing more than a hundred drawings with them! The collective was named The Memphis Design Group, (aka Memphis Milano) after the Dylan song, and they made their debut at the Salone del Mobile Milano (Milan Furniture Fair) in 1981 with fifty-five pieces.

Bel Air Armchair, 1982 and Big Sur Sofa, 1986, Peter Shire

The brilliant colors, seemingly arbitrary lines, and plastic laminate surfaces of their furniture was completely new — and shocking to some. They spoofed familiar every-day objects, designing them as playful eye-candy, taunting the principles of so-called ‘good design’.

Of course — as is always the case with new movements — their work was widely ridiculed. Nonetheless, it did find immediate fans, with Karl Lagerfield assembling a collection of key pieces, many of which decorated his office. David Bowie became an avid collector, and at his death it was revealed that he owned more than 400 pieces.

It didn’t look serious. It looked like a prank. It mixed formica attitude with marble diffidence. Bright yellows against turquoise. Virus patterns on ceramics. It couldn’t care less about function. each piece of furniture offered a plethora of possibilities, options and inconclusive open ends.”

David Bowie on Memphis, V Magazine, 2002

Installation view

When Bowie began collecting Memphis in the 1990s, he moved his acquisitions around among his various properties. After his death in 2016, much of Bowie’s collection was sold at auction at Sotheby’s — and many of those pieces found their way into this collection. Kinda cool to think that David Bowie ate his meals at that table!

The eye-catching red and white exterior of the museum offers no hint of the visual stimulation percolating inside.

Facade, Modernism Museum, Mount Dora

First impression for a post-modern newbie?

OMG — preschool on acid!

Installation view

That reaction quickly changed, as we sat down for a few minutes to watch the suggested video — listening to Guest Curator Glenn Adamson and design expert and Memphis collector Keith Johnson talk about Ettore Sottsass and the history of the movement. That drew us into a new sphere of appreciation. There’s nothing like context to expand ones thinking!

Few did, but one could furnish an entire home with Memphis Design pieces, from beds, to seating, to room dividers and shelving, lamps, ceramics and glass, to carpets and fabrics. It was a breakthrough moment in design history. Memphis Milano’s wacky revolution was too radical to take hold in the home furnishings industry, but their ideas established the look of the ’80s and have continued to have a waxing and waning influence in popular culture and design ever since.

Oceanic, 1981, Michele de Lucchi. Table lamp in tubular steel & paint
Peninsula, 1982, Peter Shire. Table in metal and glass

Although the original group of designers was mostly Italian, the collective was international, with two Americans, Michael Graves and Peter Shire. Many of us are familiar with Michael Graves through the original household products he designed for Target, and the best-selling kettle he designed for Alessi. But Graves — already a well-known architect by then — designed two iconic furnishings that were introduced at Memphis’ debut at the Milan Furniture Fair in 1981. One was the Stanhope bed, shown above, the other the Plaza vanity (shown in installation view above) — both of which epitomized the melding of Art Deco lines with futurism, color and 1950s kitsch.

Anchorage, 1982, Peter Shire. Teapot in sterling silver

Peter Shire made regular contributions to Memphis. Before being asked by Sottsass to join the collective, Shire was already a well-known ceramicist, specializing in fantastical teapots. He continually explored the physics of teapots, reinterpreting their classical form in myriad ways. It was his teapots that caught Sottsass’ attention. He found them “fresh, witty and full of information for the future.”

The pink wall in the room vignette shown below is actually made up of a tiny “virus” pattern that has been reproduced in various colors and on materials including plastic laminate. Ettore Sottsass’ inspiration for the design — which he called “Bacterio” — came from the surface texture of a Buddhist temple wall in Madurai, India, reimagined in a field of squiggled abstraction.

Installation view, room vignette

So much to see in a smallish space, chuckling from beginning to end. From Sottsass’ famous red typewriter — which apparently was the object that got David Bowie’s collection started — to a transparent chair with roses “floating” within, to the psychedelic-zebra-striped Caligari Steinway piano, the objects on display are serious fun.

Valentine, 1968, Ettore Sottsass. Typewriter in ABS plastic, steel & rubber / Madonna, 1984, Arquitectonica. Table in lacquered wood

And if the explosion of color and geometry-run-amok begins to overwhelm, one can get away from it all by imagining a climb up into the cocoon of Wendell Castle’s black meditation pod that towers over the front of the gallery.

A New Environment, 2012, Wendell Castle. American ash, fiberglass & Flokati wool carpet

Mount Dora is a cute little lakefront town in central Florida, know for its art festivals and antique shops, cozy places to stay, and many restaurants. Our vote for the best restaurant in town is the award-winning 1921 Mount Dora, just across the street from the Modernism Museum. The restaurant maintains an allegiance with local growers, producers and food artisans, and it features a collection of artwork, with select pieces on loan from the Museum.

Hmmm … maybe it’s time to plan a little trip?

Modernism Museum Mount Dora
145 E 4th Ave, Mount Dora, FL
352–385–0034

This article was previously published on the Art Things Considered art and travel blog for art geeks, brought to you by ArtGeek.art. ArtGeek is the only online tool that makes it easy to discover almost 1700 art museums, historic houses & artist studios, and sculpture & botanical gardens across the US.

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