Collector’s Corner is a recurring interview feature that checks in with art collectors around the world.
Dennis Zanone’s phone connection is slightly fuzzy because he speaks on a 1986 Ettore-Sottssas–designed telephone. Zanone’s bed is the “Tawaraya” boxing ring, a Memphis prototype for a conversation pit, that quintessential piece of 20th-century furniture that never took off. They are relics from the original Memphis design movement, a group of young designers led by Ettore Sottsass, in reaction against the banal restraint of heavy mid-century furniture design. Zanone, a wedding photographer living in Tennessee, has the largest collection of Memphis design in the U.S., probably in the world, and spoke to us about devoting his life to collecting the niche and often-maligned movement. As Lorry Parks Dudley, a scholar of the Memphis movement who has worked with Zanone on showing and exhibiting the pieces, has put it: “There can be no more Modern pursuit than to upset convention, innovate at a primal level, and communicate a spirit of joyous rebellion against whatever has become the status quo. Thirty years after its dramatic debut, Memphis continues to assert its undeniable legacy.”
ARTnews: Is everything in your collection functional?
Dennis Zanone: Everything is practical and workable. It all functions. Memphis challenges the notion of form follows functions. It started out as conceptual, with Sottsass gathering the young designers together. Then it became commercial. It was not a satire. It’s a way to make you think differently about form and function.
Each chair, sofa, bookcase, sideboard, and other pieces are capable of functioning as intended. They’re so well made, they’re all usable. The “Bel Air” chair, for example, is comfortable, and other chairs not so much but they are “sit-able”. The cabinets all hold things and the bookcases or room dividers do the same. The colors imply a childish use, but they are all heavy and well made by the Memphis furniture makers.
Are there any pieces in the collection that don’t function the way they are supposed to?
They all look impractical. None of them are.
Did you aim to own the definitive Memphis collection?
I do. Mine is the largest since Karl Lagerfeld, who bought the entire first collection from Sottsass. He sold his whole collection in 1991 at Sotheby’s in Monaco.
When did you discover Memphis?
I first saw Memphis design in 1984 at the then-named Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis during the American Museum premiere of Memphis that toured several cities in the mid-1980s and ended at the Cooper-Hewitt [in New York] in 1986. Afterwards the pieces went back to Italy and the drawings and sketches to the designers. The group disbanded in 1987 and Sottsass, the founder, left in 1985.
Have you noticed the recent renaissance, and renewed interest in the movement—for example, at last year’s Milan design week? What do you put it down to?
Yes, I’ve seen the Memphis–inspired or –influenced shapes and colors in fashion and furniture lately. Some say it is resurgence, but I know it isn’t, it is just an upbeat inspirational trend, in my opinion. Maybe modern designers felt the state of design was becoming stale, as the Memphis group felt. It was an antagonist to early 1970s chrome black, beige, chrome, and glass. Or maybe it is a reaction to the world economic and political situation.
So does that mean that the Memphis influences we’re seeing today are an attempt to brighten the world, make it friendlier?
Could be. Or maybe we’re just overthinking it. It’s just fun to live with.
How would you characterize the design and movement?
Colorful. Visceral. People love it or hate it.
Interest in Memphis is growing right now. I was on the forefront of the Memphis resurgence, maybe a bit too early. It’s still too early for Memphis to be really valuable at auction. Even now, at auction, the pieces only sell for slightly higher than their original retail price of thirty years ago. Memphis might never be a huge commercial commodity. The movement was always meant to be ephemeral. But I think value will go up soon.
Do you think that Memphis is under-represented in the prestigious museum circuit, compared to other design movements?
I’d like to say yes, but it’s only been thirty years. Give it time. Pieces can still be ordered, which hurts collectability. Craig Miller at the Denver Museum championed Memphis—they’re big on design there. If there is an exhibition of my collection, I would want it to be at a design–oriented museum, rather a general museum.
Are you also a scholar of the movement?
No. Just a collector. I learn about the pieces through living with them.
It’s good to collect in one area. I have no interest in other design. It’s completely obsessive. A few pieces turns into an obsession. I try to buy everything if it’s Memphis. About twice a day, every day, I check eBay for pieces—I have my search terms.
But a collector has to focus. If it’s made in the ‘80s I have to buy it, even if a ‘90s piece is better condition. Sottsass didn’t expect anyone to have a full room full of Memphis.
You have travelled your collection recently, for exhibition—where to, and do you like exhibiting your collection?
Yes, a museum in Memphis, the Dixon, showed my collection last year and it was a fun exhibition and most people had no idea an Italian design movement was partially named for the city. I’m open to traveling the collection to design-oriented museums in the future if wanted.
Kartell has a new collection of six vases, two stools and a lamp, designed by Sottsass before he died. Have those been added to your collection?
No, they are interesting, but I stay within the ’81-’87 Memphis era and Sottsass’s design career was long before Memphis and after Memphis, until his death in 2007 at age 90.
Would it be correct, then, to say that you really think of Memphis as a moment in time, more than a style?
Yes, Sottsass always thought of Memphis as an ephemeral design movement but was serious about creating pieces that made the viewer think about the design of what a chair, sofa, bookcase, teapot, lamp, etc. was supposed to look like in the viewer’s mind and what it could look like created by an artist-designer while still being functional. It wasn’t meant as a joke or reaction to other design, just a way of making us rethink our notions and concepts of what design is—not whether it is good or bad. In my opinion that makes the design more objective because it is what it is and not as subjective as most people initially think.
What is it like to live within Memphis, in your home?
Fun and a bit frenetic at times, but all of the pieces function as intended even if their form doesn’t seem to. Frenetic because of the primary colors, mix of materials and the unusual shapes, and fun to see people’s reaction when they unexpectedly walk into a room full of the design. They freeze for a few seconds trying to get their brain and eyes in sync with what they are seeing.
What do you say to those who call the style ugly?
I say that they just don’t get it. Memphis was meant as an ephemeral design movement to make a statement about the design of the time and not a reaction to or against important mid-century modern.
I like what Memphis designer Nathalie Du Pasquier said about this in a recent Metropolis interview about her new designs:
…bright colors are not childish. Those patterns were not funny. It was totally misunderstood in the sense that it was taken for a joke—that the serious thinking was part of Modernism, and because what we were doing was in reaction against that, it meant we were not serious…But all of this was extremely serious to us. The ideas in our work were very serious in the sense that we thought they were important, and we deeply felt them.
Is there anything that you don’t have? Any piece that you’ve always wanted but haven’t been able to find?
Oh yes…the Lagerfeld catalogue reminds me all of the time. Lagerfeld was a friend of Sottsass and bought very early one-of-a-kind pieces for his apartment in Monte Carlo in the 1980s. Some of these were one-off pieces, almost prototypes but weren’t. He had one of the pièce de résistance designs, the “Plaza” dresser and “Stanhope” bed by Michael Graves who was asked by Sottsass to contribute to Memphis in 1981 to give the movement an American presence and gravitas. He also asked another American, the L.A. designer Peter Shire who still designs in Echo Park. Early Memphis pieces were named for hotels around the world.
Is there anything else you collect?
No, no interest or room left.