Bright colors, bold shapes, and patterns galore—when the Memphis style burst onto the scene in 1981, it wasn’t just a stark contrast from International Style and Midcentury Modernism which had reigned in the design vernacular over the previous decades, but it became part of the defining characteristics of the 1980s. Named after the cooperative that started it, Memphis Group, Memphis design style started in 1981. The information that follows explores the elements of the Memphis style.
Origins and Overview
The Memphis Group was started in Milan, Italy by designer Ettore Sottsass as a reaction against modernism and minimalism. The group wanted to create designs that were ‘radical, funny, and outrageous,’ taking inspiration from Art Deco and Pop Art as well as 1950s kitsch. The products that they created were designed with wild colors, untraditional materials—such as Terrazzo and laminate being incorporated into furniture and lamps–and irregular shapes. It’s also notable that Memphis took their name from the Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside a Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Reportedly, during the initial meeting in Sottsass’ apartment, the song was played on repeat while the group showed each other their ideas for furniture and lighting.
The Memphis Group debuted during the 1981 Salone del Mobile of Milan furniture fair. While it never took off commercially, they had a number of major followers including designer Karl Lagerfeld who bought the entirety of Sottsass’ first collection, and David Bowie, who, it was discovered during an estate auction in 2016, owned more than 400 pieces of Memphis furniture. The set design for Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Saved By The Bell were heavily influenced by Memphis Group’s work. Although the Memphis Group disbanded in 1987 and being widely seen as a short-lived fad, Memphis style has had a bit of a resurgence in the last several years as individuals have looked for ways to invite a bit of whimsy into interiors. In 2013, one member of the Memphis Group, Nathalie Du Pasquier, designed Memphis style bags for Danish company HAY, then later designed a collection for American Apparel.
Bright Colors: The hues used in Memphis Style are bright–almost or at times neon–and pallets often incorporate contrasting colors.
Laminate and Terrazzo: Traditionally used as a flooring material up to this point, Memphis often uses laminates and Terrazzos as the surfacing materials on products, including lamps.
Rejection of Traditional Shapes: Although the bright colors and materials are indicative of Memphis Style, the Memphis Group rejected traditional shapes, leading the overall shapes of their pieces to be whimsical and wacky. Geometric shapes are part of the design and aesthetic; often they contrast with other shapes in the same pieces of furniture and are often enlarged to attract attention.
Squiggles/Bacterio Print: The iconic print was designed by Sottsass in 1978 for Italian plastic laminate manufacturer Abet Laminati. Laminates became a material used by and inspiration for the Memphis Group. The Bacterio Print was inspired by the surface texture of a Buddhist temple in Madurai, India.