The Italian designer Ettore Sottsass (1917–2007) remains best known for his work with the Memphis Group of the 1980s, which combined historical references with brash color, frenetic patterns and wonky forms that seemed equally indebted to 1950s retro chic and Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The group’s postmodern pastiche determined in part how the ’80s looked. As this exuberant retrospective reveals, Sottsass’s involvement with Memphis represents a small part of his 60-year career. He juggled a prodigious range of disciplines, making things that were fun and seductive, from the shiny red plastic Valentine Portable Typewriter he designed for Olivetti in 1968 to the perky pink, penis-shaped Shiva Vase of 1973.
Still, the showstopper is the exhibition’s final gallery, filled with Sottsass’s Memphis work, along with outstanding pieces by other designers who shared his sensibilities, like Shiro Kuramata’s ethereally transparent 1989 acrylic Cabinet de Curiosité. The quintessential Memphis object, Sottsass’s 1981 Carlton Room Divider, serves as the gallery’s centerpiece. A multicolored bookcase, exquisitely finished in mismatched plastic laminate, features dynamically angled, symmetrical geometries that culminate in the outline of a little man standing at the top with upraised arms. Busy, bright, tacky, a little vulgar, but likable and beautifully crafted, it is the visual equivalent of the New Wave pop music of its era. It feels similarly buoyant and delightful, if ultimately nostalgic.