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What is Memphis Design and Why Should I Care?

By: Sarah Beaumont

July 13, 2016

Photo via ArchiPanic / Aria

We all know the 80s are back, from clothes to music to interiors. With it we’ve seen a resurgence of one of our favorite loud-and-proud design movements, Memphis Design. But where did the movement come from? What characterized it? And how does it translate today? We’ve got your primer below!

A Brief History of Memphis Design:

It was December of 1980 when Italian designer Ettore Sottsass gathered a group of his fellow creatives together for a meeting in Milan. A Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” was playing on repeat while they discussed their ideas, and it inspired the name for their new movement: Memphis.

Taking parts of Art Deco, Pop Art, and 1950s Kitsch, the Memphis Group sought to put an end to the slick uniformity of Modernism. Bye bye streamlined minimalism, hello brash creativity, clashing colors, loud patterns, and boxy shapes.

Photos via Memphis Milano

Designed by Ettore Sottsass himself, the iconic Carlton bookshelf (left) was one of the first pieces presented at the 1981 Salone del Mobile in Milan and became somewhat of a poster-child for the group. Photos via Memphis Milano.

After the design world overcame its initial shock, Memphis became the look of the moment. Karl Lagerfeld transformed his entire apartment into a Memphis playground. Businesses adopted the vibrant style hoping to boost creativity and morale (and save some money–most of the items were made from plastic). In the 30+ years since its birth, it’s been described as loathsome, a joke, and most recently, a “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price.” But, love it or hate it, it’s back, it’s bold, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

Photo of Karl Lagerfeld's Memphis playground apartment by Jacques Schumacher, via We-Heart

Photo of Karl Lagerfeld’s Memphis playground apartment by Jacques Schumacher. Photo via We-Heart

Memphis Design Today:

So what exactly turned the world back on to the cartoonish shapes, poppy patterns, and colorful laminate surfaces?Much like in the 1980s, Memphis today is a reaction against the prevailing recent trends of white walls, neutral palettes and minimalism. It’s a revival of seriously bold color palettes and pattern mixing.

The Memphis-inspired office space of Valenica, Spain design studio Masquespacio. Photos via Masquespacio.

The Memphis-inspired office space of design studio Masquespacio in Valencia, Spain. Photos via Masquespacio.

Most contemporary iterations of Memphis are slightly more minimal and refined. Designers have swapped laminates and plastics for higher quality materials, but the look still plays with geometric shapes in a blend of bold primary colors.

Young Mič Styling hair salon by Slovenian architect and design studio Kitsch-Nitsch

Young Mič Styling hair salon by Slovenian architect and design studio Kitsch-Nitsch. Photos via Yellowtrace.

True to 80s trends, this hair salon in Slovenia draws inspiration from the wild patterns of original Memphis Group member Natalie du Pasquier, whose designs have recently been featured as furniture and textile prints for brands like Hay and American Apparel.

Chair by Kelly Behun, Lamp by

Chair by Kelly Behun, lamp by Swedish Ninja. Photos via Yellowtrace.

Kelly Behun’s furniture collection feels like it could have been taken straight from the mind of a Memphis designer. Her chairs are atypical in shape with bold stripes, bright colors, and laminate finishes. An adorable lamp by Maria Gustavssson, aka Swedish Ninja, is more on the contemporary side, but its playful body and pastel tones give it that Memphis charm.

Photos via Creative Market, Camille Walala for Aria

Camille Walala’s designs for Aria. Photos via Creative Market.

Designer Camille Walala is the contemporary voice for the Memphis movement. The eye-popping graphics she’s worked on for stores like Urban Outfitters are a total nostalgic nod to the 80s. Above are her designs for London shop Aria, a dizzying collection of dots, dashes, and color-blocked items that offer a nostalgic take on Memphis design.

So why do people suddenly love Memphis in 2016? To put it simply, it’s fun. It’s a pop of color and vibrancy in a monochromatic, minimalist world.  And lets face it, we could all use a little more fun.

Related: The Return of the ’80s in Design

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