An MDF bookcase for £12,000? The jolting genius of design superstudio Memphis

An MDF bookcase for £12,000? The jolting genius of design superstudio MemphisDecember 1, 2020

The high-voltage style, comic-strip colours and eye-watering price tags of this Italian collective changed the world of design – what better place for an exhibition than modernist Milton Keynes?

With its comic-book colours, gaudy patterns and paper-thin veneers, the work of Italian design group Memphis has rarely looked as at home as it does in Milton Keynes. The first glimpse you get of the garish thrills in store in this new exhibition is through a big picture window, punched into the side of the corrugated mirror-polished box of the MK Gallery. Shining out between the building’s bright yellow loading bay and red spiral staircase stands the Carlton, a bookcase-cum-room-divider-cum-shamanic-totem, in all its crazed glory. Designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1981, and collected by the likes of David Bowie, Karl Lagerfeld and Cara Delevingne, it has become the symbol of a brief moment in Milan when a group of designers stuck two fingers up at good taste – and changed the world of design for the next four decades.

For its UK showing, this touring exhibition couldn’t have picked a better location. “Part of our role,” says the MK Gallery director, Anthony Spira, “is to remind people that Milton Keynes comes from a really interesting cultural moment.” Before you snort, he’s got a point. The planners of this denigrated new town were plugged into the avant garde of contemporary design and radical urban theory in the 1970s. “They were reading Domus magazine in the development corporation,” he says. “I’ve always thought of the mirror-clad grid of Station Square as a homage to Superstudio [a radical Italian architecture group].”

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