Memphis, South Africa

21 February 2013 - 02:37 By Andrea Nagel

The Memphis design movement of the 1980s is making a comeback. Last night an iconic piece of Memphis design - The Carlton Room Divider - went under the hammer in Cape Town this week.

The piece, designed by the late Italian designer Ettore Sottsass, valued at between R160000 and R180000, is referred to by Anton Welz, of auction house Stephan Welz & Co, as ''a serious piece, epitomising all that the group stood for".

The Memphis movement was a protest against the plain and humourless design of the 1970s and used cheap materials like plastic laminates in bold and bright colours.

''They [once again] vindicated the fact that design was not for eternity and could be just for fun, adhering to the principals of pop art," said Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort, who is curating an exhibition on Memphis-inspired local designs at this year's Design Indaba Expo in Cape Town next week.

''The colourful furniture was sensational and considered bizarre, once even [being] described as a blend of Bauhaus and Fisher-Price."

Edelkoort has identified the Memphis design movement as the revival de jour - and has noted a few reasons for this.

Bold colour blocking, lifting us out of the recession blues, has been in fashion since last summer, and the fun and playfulness of the pop art, street art, kitchen kitsch and Art Deco elements of the movement relieve the seriousness of the stark minimalist trend (actually very expensive to achieve effectively) that has dominated design for years.

Memphis design collector Justin Kerrod, of Cape Town, said that the movement took the over-the-top fashion of the 1980s - with its shoulder pads, large colourful earrings, bold block colours and geometric designs - into the furniture, design and architecture sphere.

More than the literal qualities of the objects themselves, it's the philosophy of the movement that is appealing to modern collectors.

Sottsass, who started the Memphis design movement in 1981, said: ''Memphis is everywhere and for everyone [but] it is like a strong drug - you cannot take too much."

Memphis has a strong influence in South Africa, where design has always been about a mixing of styles - African prints and icons with contemporary shapes, or luxurious imported materials with plastic and wire.

The name was inspired by the Bob Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.

The Memphis design movement was dismantled in 1988 by Sottsass .