What started as a rebuke of mainstream design became one of the biggest pop culture influences of the 1980s. Learn where this quirky, colorful style came from and why its impact continues today.
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The '80s were defined by big hair, bold style, and over-the-top personality. It was the decade that brought us blockbuster movies like E.T. and Beverly Hills Cop, when MTV turned artists including Michael Jackson and Madonna into icons and yuppies propelled the latest trends. It was a prosperous, exciting time, and amidst it all, a new design movement pulsed just under the surface.

Although never intended for mainstream appeal, Memphis design came to be recognized as the defining style of the decade, its influence seeping into fashion, film, and TV. You might not have heard of the name, but you've seen the aesthetic in MTV's technicolor logos and in the wacky set design of shows like Saved by the Bell and Pee-Wee's Playhouse.

What began as the antithesis of the establishment eventually morphed into a seminal style that continues to drive trends today. But to truly understand the Memphis movement, you have to go back to the beginning.

memphis milano movement designed living room
Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Origins of Memphis Design

It all started one December night in 1980 with a gathering of young architects and designers in the living room of a Milan apartment. Over a folksy soundtrack of Bob Dylan drifting from the record player, the group deliberated the current design establishment and brainstormed ideas for a radical new approach. Spearheaded by Italian architect Ettore Sottsass, their vision eschewed the clean, minimalist attitude of midcentury modernism, instead favoring bold, brash colors and less conventional shapes.

The evening's discussions led to the design of a 55-piece collection of furniture, fabrics, and objects that debuted the following year at Milan's Salone del Mobile, where it shook up the design world with its rebellious, rule-breaking style. Thus, the Memphis Design Group was born, its name an homage to the song playing on loop that night: Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.

"Designers in the Memphis movement were actively trying to go against what came before them, but they were also making references to the past, such as shapes and forms from Art Deco and colors from the mid-20th-century Pop Art movement," explains Alessandra Wood, design historian and vice president of style for the online interior design service Modsy.

This eclectic mix formed the picture of post-modernism, with an emphasis on playfulness that bordered on the absurd. Experimenting with vibrant colors, deliberately clashing patterns, and the often-nonsensical use of geometric shapes, the Memphis group established "a fun and frivolous style that doesn't take itself too seriously," Wood says. Memphis design was provocative and polarizing—and that was the point.

colorful memphis bookcase in a museum show
An Ettore Sottsass 'Carlton' bookcase in a museum show
| Credit: Monica Schipper / WireImage / Getty Images

Memphis in Pop Culture

As its notoriety spread outside Italy's borders, the Memphis movement found fans in the likes of singer David Bowie and designer Karl Lagerfeld, who were both avid collectors of the group's original designs. While the style never quite caught on with the average consumer, its signature squiggly lines and zany colors appeared across movies, TV shows, and retail spaces throughout the 1980s.

"As shopping malls were at the forefront of retail development, these new spaces often adopted the quirky color palette and shape-play of Memphis style," Wood says. People weren't necessarily decorating their homes with Sottsass' Carlton room divider or Bacterio print fabrics, but the style was omnipresent in '80s popular culture.

Although the Memphis Design Group was short-lived—Sottsass himself left the collective in 1985, and it officially disbanded in 1988—its impact still resonates today. The group's proclivity for squiggly forms and terrazzo surfaces, for example, can be seen in today's wavy-framed mirrors and speckled accessories. In fact, many of the retro design trends that have re-emerged in recent years can be traced directly back to that December evening in 1980.

And it's not the aging yuppies fueling this Memphis renaissance. Nostalgia for the '80s has found a particularly keen audience in Millennials and Gen Zers, many of whom, like the Memphis movement's founders, resist the safety of established styles, choosing instead to bend the rules to their unique tastes.

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