A Brief History of Memphis, The Design Group that Defined the Look of the ’80s

published Apr 6, 2016
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Ettore Sottsass’ Carlton room divider/bookcase/storage unit (Image credit: Dixon Gallery)

Whether you think of this as good news or terrible news, in the world of design, the ’80s are back in a big way. So we thought this would be a good time to do a brief dip into the history of the Memphis Design Group, an Italian design and architecture collective whose wild, colorful, postmodern style defined the look of the 80s.

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The Big Sur Sofa, designed by Peter Shire in 1986 and available on 1st Dibs. (Image credit: 1st Dibs)

The Memphis Group was created by Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass in 1980, and named for the Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” which played repeatedly at the meeting which marked the group’s founding.

The Roma chair by Marco Zanini for Memphis (Image credit: 1st Dibs)

The crew of designers that Sotsass convened presented their first collection at Milan’s Salone del Mobile in 1981, and continued to produce pieces for most of the decade, until they disbanded in 1988.

Flamingo bedside table by Michele de Lucchi (Image credit: Dixon Gallery)

Like a lot of design movements, the Memphis Group was a reaction to what had come before: Sotsass and his collaborators were bored with the restrained lines and minimal color palette of modernism, and wanted to create something completely different. Their designs were wild and exuberant, often composed of brightly colored geometric shapes rendered in a simple, almost two-dimensional way, which gave them a playful, even childlike feel.

Memphis tool kit (Image credit: 1st Dibs)

Although not many of these intentionally bizarre pieces made their way into the homes of average people, the Memphis Group did have a tremendous influence on 80s design. Their unabashed exuberance and penchant for big, look-at-me designs was a particularly good fit for the ‘me’ decade, and some of their trademark elements — bright colors, wacky shapes, a kind of cartoonish two-dimensionality — are at the core of what we think of as 80s design. Witness, for example, the outfit Stacey (I think that’s Stacey) wears on the front cover of the very first Baby-Sitters Club book, which would have made Ettore Sottsass proud.

The Memphis look for interiors: a showroom for activewear brand Esprit (Image credit: Globule)

Not everyone was a fan. Critics at the time derided the Memphis movement as a jokey phase, a bizarre and forgettable blip on the design radar. And contemporary critics haven’t always been kind, either: Bertrand Pellegrin, writing for SFGate in 2012, described the group’s designs as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”.

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Designer Camille Walala‘s Memphis-inspired exhibit for London Design Week in 2015, which features Walala’s own pieces alongside Sotsass’ ‘Tahiti’ lamp. Spotted on Little Big Bell. (Image credit: Little Big Bell)

But like a lot of previously reviled design movements, the Memphis style is slowly starting to creep its way back into the spotlight. The New York Times predicted its comeback in 2007, and there’s been a bit of a slow renaissance. Every year at ICFF, the design equivalent of a runway show, I spot a few more pieces with those bright colors and funky shapes.

These pattern chess piece stools by Anna Karlin definitely show the Memphis influence. (Image credit: Anna Karlin)

It’s hard to say why, exactly, this was this particular moment for the 80s to return — maybe it’s just nostalgia, or maybe it’s that in an era where irony is everywhere, a design that is wildly and fully itself seems deeply refreshing. But whether you love it or hate it, at least for the time being: Memphis is back.

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