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Carlton bookcase

A totem of radical revolution in design, designed by Ettore Sottsass for Memphis. A story that began in 1981 and is now 40 years old

In our lives we need objects that lie somewhere between art and poetry, that are able to make us isolate ourselves from everyday life, transforming our home into the setting we need. In this Memphis represented exactly the producer of objects of desire, capable of transmitting unknown emotions. A collective that transformed the design of the future in just a few years.

Article summary

  • The beginning of Memphis Design
  • Carlton bookcase
  • Design bookcase materials
  • Bookcase Carlton facts
  • Bookcase Carlton performance
  • Bookcase Carlton price list
  • Exhibitions
  • A museum piece
Tawaraya boxing ring by Masanori Umeda 1981

In 1981 Ettore Sottsass and Barbara Radice founded the Memphis collective in Milan, which remained active until 1988. It was an international group of designers, including Michele De Lucchi, Martine Bedin, George Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier.

The aim was to break away from the coldness and monochrome of 1970s design (minimalist and characterised by the colour black) to bring in new concepts from the past. It developed at a time of great cultural ferment, as a laboratory for the creation of new design ideas through the search for shapes, colours and materials that would contrast with the standardised and traditional universe of furniture of the time.

The beginning of Memphis Design

The first to talk about it, together with Sottsass , were De Lucchi, Bedin, Thun, Cibic and Zanini in an informal meeting on 11 December 1980. During that meeting, the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song gave the group its name: “Stuck inside of mobile with Memphis Blues again”. But Memphis is also the name of the capital of Ancient Egypt, which is perhaps why their objects have such a strong spiritual value. As well as being the name of the American city where Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley were born. The name was therefore perfect for the idea of combining past and present so dear to the collective.

Memphis Milano Movement, Zanone

Memphis was born two months after that meeting, in February 1981. The designers came up with new, fresh and above all colourful designs; inspired by movements such as Futurism, Pop Art, Kitsch and Art Deco. An exhibition was held on 18 September 1981 at the Arc ’74 gallery in Milan. They were mainly household objects: ceramics, sofas, carpets and lamps, created as unique pieces, but widely publicised in the international press, so much so that they influenced the design of other companies.

Inauguration Memphis Milan 18 September 1981 showroom Arc 74, photo Pino Varchetta

The success of the exhibition was unexpected. Thousands of people flocked to visit the exhibition on Memphis design, intrigued by this new way of interpreting living spaces using furniture as the protagonist. But the public was also attracted by a more provocative communication. The poster showed a T-Rex with its mouth wide open (designed by Luciano Paccagnella), which aroused great curiosity in public opinion.

Invitation to the first exhibition of the Memphis collection in Milan in 1981

Among the crowd, one element did not go unnoticed, so much so that it became the symbol of the collective. We are talking about the Carlton bookcase.

Carlton bookcase

Designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1981, the Carlton bookcase is defined as a totem bookcase because of its anthropomorphic shape, reminiscent of a man with raised arms and spread legs. Its composition is also reminiscent of an indigenous altar, as if the objects intended to inhabit it became gifts to be immolated on the altar.

Carlton Bookshop

The Carlton bookcase is made up of simple assembled geometric shapes, characterised by bright and playful colours. This was Sottsass‘s aim, to create a playful response to society’s need for a solid piece of furniture, “the sacred and the profane, history and actuality, the archetype and its manifestations”. It was described by some as an object of disharmony because of its inconsistent colours (bright tones and pastel shades) and its mix of curved elements, orthogonal lines and oblique lines.

The materials of the design bookcase

The Carlton bookcase was made of wood and covered with coloured plastic laminates (made by the Abet company), used by Memphis as a material without value, a criticism of consumerism. The base of the bookcase, also covered with plastic laminate, was printed with the decorative theme Bacterio (so called because of the pattern that recalls the image of a bacterial culture observed under a microscope) designed by Sottsass for Studio Alchimia in 1978.

Carlton bookcase detail

“I tried to draw objects, things, furniture and have them built. I made them big and heavy with plinths and bases to take them away from the kitsch of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois furniture. They are almost nowhere to be found and in any case they do not bind, they cannot even produce coordinates. Standing alone, like the monuments in the squares, and cannot even create style. Present also decorated because in this way I can communicate different cultural states, depending on the case and according to real functional needs”. From this statement by Ettore Sottsass we really understand his work as a designer. But even the comparison to a monument does not go unnoticed, as this design bookcase is 196 cm high by 40 cm wide, reaching a total weight of 120 kg.

Bookcase Carlton facts

The popularity of the Carlton bookcase grew so much that it became a true icon of Italian design, and not only. But its fame did not remain only within the sphere of furniture, it succeeded in imposing itself as a representative of an era and its development.

Carlton bookcase
Libreria Carlton

In the year 2000 the Italian Post Office produced a series of stamps dedicated to Italian design. As collectors know, every year stamps are dedicated to events, personalities or anniversaries that have distinguished the country issuing them.

At the beginning of this new century Poste dedicated them to the production of Italian furniture and furnishing accessories of the second half of the 20th century. Each stamp, designed by Raffaele Castiglioni, was divided into four boxes containing an iconic design piece. The Carlton design bookcase by Ettore Sottsass was placed alongside the Arco lamp by Fratelli Castiglioni, the Cupola coffee pot by Aldo Rossi and the Breeze chair by Carlo Bartoli.

Carlton bookcase and performance

Carlton for “Where There’s Smoke.” Photo credits Maarten van Houten

In 2004, at the Moss Gallery in New York, Marteen Baas burned the Carlton bookcase for his solo exhibition ‘Where there’s smoke’. The aim of the Dutch designer, who burned other design objects for the exhibition, was to strip these pieces of furniture of their “design” aura and bring them to their true purpose.

Baas often said that he was fascinated by the way people preserved the objects in their homes intact and over time, while burning the furniture takes on a new face and a new aesthetic personality. The technique involves charring the furniture, bringing it all to the same stage and colour, and then coating it with a transparent epoxy resin so that it can be used again. Today, these design objects are housed in the world’s most important museums, such as the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Groninger Museum.

Carlton bookcase
Anniversary 30 years Carlton bookstore. Photo credits Jonathan Frantini

In honour of the 30th anniversary of the Carlton bookcase, Memphis design created a special production of 30 pieces in total. Each one is numbered on a 925 silver label plated with 24-carat gold and contained in a special “caveau” model wooden case.

Bookcase Carlton price list

In November 2016, an auction of rock star David Bowie’s furniture was held in London at Sotheby’s historic New Bond Street location. The White Duke had a great passion for art and design, a legacy of his studies in art history undertaken before devoting himself fully to his musical career.

But among the paintings by Duchamp, Henry Moore, Damien Hirst and Basquiat, a great passion for Ettore Sottsass‘s designer furniture emerges above all. The Casablanca sideboard, the Tahiti and Treetops lamps, the Enorme telephone and, of course, the Carlton bookcase. Bowie considered Sottsass to be the founding father of modern design: “Let the various Starcks and Lovegroves stand up and salute the greatest designer of the last fifty years, the man who opened the door to them: Ettore Sottsass“.

The Carlton was auctioned for the modest sum of £52,500. But Bowie was not the only famous person to have owned the Carlton bookshop. We could add Belgian fashion designer Anthony Vaccarello, American film director Sofia Coppola, British model Cara Delevingne and German designer Karl Lagerfeld to the list, and who knows how many others.


These months of lockdown have hit museums and art galleries hard, unable to bring new emotions to visitors. But the desire to celebrate and honour the 40th anniversary of Memphis has certainly not stopped. Exhibitions dedicated to the collective that changed the world of design and beyond have been and will be set up in various parts of Europe. Let’s see them together.

Carlton bookcase
Memphis Plastic Field, Palazzo Franchetti, Venice, Luca Miserocchi

In leafy England, 150 colourful pieces of Memphis furniture are on display at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. “Memphis: Plastic Field” curated by IB Studio Milano analyses the collective’s 40 years with its most iconic pieces. Inside the recent concrete and steel structure, the environment is warmed by colourful, geometric furniture that has retained its charm and appeal from the 1980s to the present day.

A museum piece

The exhibition is in a vein, reinterpreting the exhibitions shown at The Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in Bordeaux, which took place from 21 June 2019 to 05 January 2020 and at the Fondazione Berengo at Palazzo Franchetti in Venice, which was open to the public from 24 May to 25 November 2018. The exhibition at MK Gallery has been extended until 12 September 2021.

Carlton bookcase
Carlton , Memphis Entrance, Post Design Gallery Largo Treves 5, Milan

Until 23 January 2022 the Vitra Design Museum will host an exhibition dedicated to the forty years of the Memphis collective. Curated by Mateo Kries, the exhibition “Memphis: 40 Years of Kitsch and Elegance” analyses the collective from its beginnings through furniture, lamps, bowls, drawings, sketches and photographs.

A plunge into the past that allows visitors to relive the sensations and emotions felt during the first Memphis exhibition. All that remains is to hope that we will soon be travelling again to participate in this colourful anniversary in museums throughout Europe. We could conclude by saying that the Carlton bookcase – burned, copied or idolised – after forty years continues to be a true pop icon.


Andrea Lovotti

Andrea Lovotti
Andrea Lovotti
Designer curioso ed entusiasta. Scrive per raccontare il mondo che ci circonda. Per intrappolare nelle parole l’emozione di tutto quello che, dal passato al presente, ha contraddistinto la parola “estetica”.