Why Memphis Is the Latest Design Hot Spot

Memphis’s In the mood for an update on the city’s design scene? Courtesy of Lake River Gallery of Contemporary Art The epicenter of post-Prohibition Memphis has been the Green Street (now Pyramid) District, a…

Why Memphis Is the Latest Design Hot Spot

Memphis’s In the mood for an update on the city’s design scene? Courtesy of Lake River Gallery of Contemporary Art

The epicenter of post-Prohibition Memphis has been the Green Street (now Pyramid) District, a 13-acre blighted tract of land torn down in the 1950s to open the floodgates to dust and debris and the straight-up rot and disrepair that characterized the post-war South. This rarely visited part of Memphis has finally been rehabilitated, with new, spacious housing, a wide array of restaurants, and an aquarium to boot.

Once known as “the next Detroit,” the Green Street district garnered attention as far back as the 19th century—but not for the right reasons. When the current mayor, Jim Strickland, was serving in the state legislature, he initiated a program to demolish the area. “Sixty to 100 years before, they took down tall buildings here and built Walmart and condemned the whole strip to show the public what was to come,” Strickland tells Co.Design.

Six years ago, Strickland decided to see if he could protect and revive the area with private investment. Eight developments have been built and now occupy the area, and by the end of 2018, a new public park,

MUSEUM FOR THE ARTS PLAZA (or MASS as the city calls it). Last year, MASS turned its first acquisition—a James Chadwick building—into office space, but it’s now installing the exhibition “Designing the MASTERS,” featuring early 20th-century designs that the city is now housing in brand-new housing.

One of the more impressive additions to the Green Street district, tucked between the historic Perseverance Playhouse Theater and Pinewood’s museum/distillery, is the nine-story Riverfront Tower, which opened in 2017 and is now home to several shops and businesses. Its three former slave quarters were transformed into 15 studio apartments, which are now getting some work. “It’s kind of pretty cool how this place was 50 years ago and it’s come full circle,” says Joey Allman, an industrial designer at Pinewood Studios who originally worked on the project.

But even as the foundations of the district’s character are being restored, another time has caught up to the city, and Memphis has begun attracting design attention from beyond the capital. Two years ago, Mike Phillips, an artist and audio engineer with a reputation for creating wildly unique, trippy mash-ups, moved to the city. He worked with the city’s Office of Fine Arts on the design of a mural in the Galvin Mansion Gallery of Contemporary Art. The city paid for the work, but Phillips raised the funds.

He later lent his expertise to Paint Memphis, a nonprofit that holds pop-up exhibitions of Memphis artists, some of whom have been working with him on an immersive pop-up project called ECHO, which uses soft-dyed acrylics to adorn three nearby buildings.

“It’s kind of like the Macleayville Acid Test, but I don’t think there’s anybody in a gas chamber,” says Phillips. “I have some delusions.”

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