Ettore Sottsass Jr.’s iconic Carlton cabinet—sometimes referred to as a “sideboard” or “room divider”—is one the designer’s most recognizable works. Its anthropomorphic form is thought provoking and yet childishly simple. The Carlton cabinet’s playfulness is asserted in its mix of garish colors, patterns, and mass-market materials—plastic laminate and wood. When Sottsass designed this piece for Memphis, the iconic postmodern design group, he was in his mid-sixties and had already had a successful career as one of Italy’s famed conceptual designers.

Bringing together both high and low culture, the design works by Memphis have appealed to collectors and institutions since the group’s inception in 1981 (the Carlton cabinet entered the Cooper Hewitt’s collection in 1986). Two of fashion design’s biggest names today collect works by Memphis: Karl Lagerfeld and Nicholas Ghesquiere (the artistic director of Louis Vuitton).

Another famous collector of works by Memphis was the late musician and pop icon David Bowie. In an upcoming sale at Sotheby’s London, on November 11, 2016, much of Bowie’s art collection will be auctioned off. The third installment of this sale features his extensive design collection, which focuses on works by Memphis and includes Bowie’s very own Carlton cabinet. In describing the impact of living with the Carlton cabinet, Bowie said: “Even now the jolt, the impact created by walking into a room containing a cabinet by Memphis—the Carlton, for instance—is visceral. It’s true that you can’t put another piece of furniture within the same space. There is just no aesthetic room. All networks of proposition are trammeled by this one item.” [1] Bowie’s use of the word “visceral” effectively captures the vitality and brilliance of Sottsass’ Carlton cabinet. It is an object that transcends the boundary between art and design.

[1]Bowie/Collector: The Personal Art Collection of David Bowie Part III Design: Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Group, (London: Sotheby’s Firm, 2016), 123.

Catherine Acosta is a graduate student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program offered jointly by the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She is a Fellow in the museum’s Product Design and Decorative Arts Department.

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