Memphis furniture is often very flat and iconic, like a graphic design popped to life. But the group’s leader, Ettore Sottsass, also had a wonderful sense of sculptural form. This is on full display in his Casablanca sideboard and Tartar table.
It is a little known fact that all of the furniture in the first Memphis collection, launched in Milan in 1981, was named for luxury hotels. The Casablanca, named for the famed Art Deco hotel in Miami, perfectly captures the blend of superficiality and glamour of the Memphis aesthetic. With its oddly shaped shelves exploding from a central rectangular case, its overall lines are anthropomorphic, like an exuberant person doing a jumping jack. Casablanca is also a showpiece for the plastic laminates made by the company Abet Laminati, (which can be described as the Italian counterpart to Formica). Abet was a major funder of Memphis in its first year, and it would be no exaggeration to say that the furniture acted as “product placement” for them. The wiggly pattern on the doors of the Casablanca, printed in two different colors, is called Bacterio and was designed by Sottsass in 1978.
The Tartar was named for an ancient barbarian tribe, perhaps a joking reference to Memphis’s reputation as uncivilized opponents of classical design. It was one of the last pieces Sottsass designed as a member of Memphis – he would announce the ending of the collective in 1987, after only six years of operation. “It’s like a love story,” he said. “When you get used to it, you have to quit.” The rough and tumble composition of the Tartar, with its piled up blocks of contrasting color and pattern, was a direction that he continued to explore in the 1990s, after parting ways with his Memphis colleagues.