How the Memphis Movement Went Against “Good Taste” to Inspire Designers Today

Trends are cyclical, and it seems that even the most outrageous ones find a way of coming back in vogue. Memphis design is one example of how a movement that, in the early aughts, would’ve seemed ridiculous, but is now back in style among influencers and tastemakers.

What is Memphis Design?

Memphis is a design movement that began in 1981. While the name might make you think that it was born in Tennesse, it got its start in Milan, Italy. Designer Ettore Sottsass founded the Memphis Group with other designers and architects. They took their name from a Bob Dylan song titled Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again which was played on repeat during their first meeting.

Like many creative movements, Memphis was a reaction against the status quo. The 1950s/60s mid-century modern and 1970s minimalism were about structure and straight lines. To counter that, Sottsass centered the group's thinking around “radical, funny, and outrageous”—essentially, disregarding what was considered in “good taste” at that time. The geometric figures of Art Deco, the color palette of Pop Art, and 1950s kitsch inspired their unusual aesthetic.

Prevailing features of Memphis design:

  • Laminate and Terrazzo materials, which were usually found on floors, were incorporated into tables and lamps.
  • Squiggles, aka the Bacterio print, was designed by Sottsass in 1978.
  • Bright, multi-colored objects with a rejection of typical shapes. Often, instead of chair legs being rectangular, they’d be circles or triangles.

The Memphis Group made their debut at the 1981 Salone del Mobile of Milan, a renowned furniture fair. Their style, while attention-grabbing, was commercially rejected and instead attracted a cult following. Designer Karl Lagerfeld was a fan and bought the entirety of Sottsass’ first collection, and when David Bowie’s estate auctioned his art collection in 2016, it was revealed that he had collected more than 400 pieces since the '80s.

Despite its fringe status, there were moments when Memphis entered the mainstream to inform pop culture in an unforgettable way. Its aesthetic can be seen on the set of Saved by the Bell and Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

The furniture realm is largely where they stayed (although they also created other design objects) until 1988 when the collective officially disbanded; Sottsass left in 1985.

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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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