Growing up in the 1980s, Olivia Kim was obsessed with furniture. She’d tag along with her mom to New Jersey shopping malls, drawn to the acid colors, cartoonish shapes, and brash patterns of the objects spread across showroom floors. Later, she discovered that the origin of those outré displays had a name: Memphis, a movement founded by Italian architect Ettore Sottsass and a handful of defiant European designers who burst onto the scene in 1981 with a radical message of pastel, Pop-inspired fun.
“I love that Memphis is anti-establishment, with its fun, kitschy colors,” Kim says. “It was made by some of the most talented people working at the time, who suggested that design didn’t have to be taken so seriously in order to be seen.”
Now, as Nordstrom’s vice president of creative projects, Kim, 41, is bringing her obsession full circle, by curating an exhibition dedicated to her favorite design movement, nestled inside the department store’s Seattle flagship.
The show, “Memphis Milano,” is meant to feel like a museum-worthy retrospective of the movement’s most iconic pieces—and everything on view is for sale. Running through Oct. 28, the exhibition hosts an impressive array of objects from the era, including Sottsass’s Carlton room divider, Michele De Lucchi’s Oceanic lamp, Nathalie Du Pasquier’s Cauliflower fruit bowl, and Martine Bedin’s Lodge bookcase, of which only about 50 were ever produced. (The volume of pieces far exceeds that of many institutions’ surveys of the movement—a testament to Kim’s longstanding friendship with Keith Johnson, the leading Memphis dealer in the U.S.) Peter Shire, a founding member of the collective, consulted on the exhibition’s design and created signage specifically for the occasion. In an ingenious twist of symmetry, Kim’s selection of classics is complemented by a gift shop stocked with Memphis-influenced creations by emerging design brands: Areaware, Volta, Studio Sophia Sophia, and Wary Meyers among them.