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Walking in Memphis

RIOTOUS COLOR AND PLAYFUL GEOMETRIES MET OUR EYES LAST WEEK AT THE OPENING OF DOWNTOWN SEATTLE NORDSTROM’S LATEST OLIVIA KIM POP-IN, FEATURING A MUSEUM-LIKE SHOWING OF FURNITURE DESIGNED BY MILAN’S FAMED ‘80S-ERA MEMPHIS GROUP. Apropos ‘80s music from the nearby DJ met our ears, too. The latest creation from Kim, Nordstrom’s VP of Creative Projects, brought in special curation from one of the movement’s founding members, artist Peter Shire. Shire, who’s based in LA, brought his iconic Bel Air chair and Peninsula table, which are displayed along with other defining pieces of the Ettore Sotsass-led design group that became the apex of 1980’s contemporary design. For many, it will be the first time seeing these creations in person, and for fewer, a chance to purchase pieces of design history that have retained resonance in the current design landscape. Memphis groupies can still walk away with smaller accessories from more approachably priced labels that pay tribute to the Italian aesthetic that started it all.

GRAY caught up with Shire at the opening as part of our running “5 Questions for” column. See the pop-in now through October 28.

What first inspired you to push the design envelope of the 1980s and co-found Memphis Group?

Basically, everything is a cumulative part of histories—personal histories and long-range histories… One could talk about where I grew up and what that was, which was an open area where we were able to be out unsupervised—not the way people are now. What that meant was that we were constantly making decisions on our own. By the time I went to high school I kept getting in trouble for things that really weren’t trouble, but were not in line with the bureaucratic ideal. They’d pull me into the office and then call my mom and say ‘he’s not a bad boy, he’s just incorrigible.’ And so that sort of lays in the framework of what we were doing [with Memphis]. It’s really about being good, but being incorrigible. Not like you can do whatever you want, but more what’s exciting and not conforming, and things that are really good and need to be released.

We’ve been seeing the resurgence of Memphis Design. Why do you think it is resonating with the contemporary design landscape?

It’s very curious, isn’t it? It’s something that’s never gone away. One of the things people forget is how exciting it was at that moment, and that there was some kind of explosion of imagination—that doesn’t go away and that’s in the work. And what the work was looking to imbue and capture was feelings—of excitement, and of the first time seeing something, and that carries through.

What do you hope people take away from this pop-up exhibition with Nordstrom?

Besides everything in it? [laughs] With the pressures that are on department stores as an entity and the nature of shopping malls and the nature of a consumer society that’s reached a certain apex… I read somewhere that shopping and making a satisfying purchase is very much akin to a typical religious experience. If you wanted to say it in a technical way, endorphins are released. People used to go to church every night because that’s what there was, and the nature of Memphis and the nature of design and of many things is that the technology and economy drive them and release possibilities. I guess I would say I want people to have the feeling of possibility; One of the things that was a toast amongst us [Memphis Group] is “Spring always comes again.”

“The smartest thing I’ve ever done was…”

Marry my wife.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? And the worst?

The best advice was from my spiritual advisor Bobby Klein, and that is, don’t give advice unless you’re asked. I’ve been operating on that for a bit, and it’s really hard to do. And the worst? Oh god, that we need a bigger magazine for.


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