In The Heart of Memphis
The colorful 80's design trend is injecting much-needed color to modern neutral palettes.
In 1981, a group of Italian designers changed the look of the decade with a movement improbably called Memphis. The name itself didn’t even actually mean much—it paid homage to the Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” which had been playing during the group’s planning meetings about how to disrupt the design world with a single showing. Soon the word would define the look of the 1980s and early 90s. At the 1981 edition of Salone del Mobile in Milan, the world’s most important design exhibition, a set of fantastical, whimsical objects appeared under the Memphis group’s banner. They were garish, weird, and at times nonsensical; but, they were entirely new. The furnishings weren’t only notable for a colorful, playful look, but for an innovative approach to manufacturing: the pieces on display hadn’t been mass-produced, they were just samples. It was a seemingly simple move that redefined design for years to come.
The look of Memphis is distinctive—you know it when you see it. It does have a few calling cards, namely pillbox prints, pastel colors, and childlike constructions that recall Fisher Price toys. Memphis itself is much harder to classify, since no ethos controls the hodge-podge aesthetic. More than 20 designers, from Ettore Sottsass to Peter Shire to Nathalie du Pasquier, are associated with the group. It’s hard to pin down, and that’s the whole point. The style today is inextricable from the maximalism of the late 80s and early 90s—so tacky it’s not, the more out there the better. Now that the trends of the very same era have come back in full force on fashion runways—from big sleeves and florals to lime green and soft pink—it’s no surprise that the designs of the generation have made their way back into showrooms, museums, and Instagram handles, too.But why has Memphis come back now of all moments? It was outwardly fun, optimistic, and carefree—everything the current conversation about the state of the world is not. While it may act as a balm on troubling times, it may also be back for deeper reasons. The actual aim of the designers was to go against the establishment, to veer away from modernism and into the wacky world of postmodernism. Memphis was meant to be rebellious. The result is a look that’s fit for the moment both inside and out.
Ettore Sottsass, the lynchpin creative behind the Memphis group, was born in Austria in 1917, and studied as an architect rather than a designer, in Italy. He went on to open a practice after World War II, and the world would know his designs long before Memphis. He was a longtime consultant at Olivetti from the 1950s through the 70s, notably designing its red portable typewriter. His love of color came early—as well as his instinct for how it could impact the feeling of a room. “Every color has a history,” he once said. “Red is the color of the Communist flag, the color that makes a surgeon move faster, and the color of passion.”
He also worked for well-regarded brands such as Alessi, Baccarat, and Knoll before his turn as the father of Memphis. He created everything from office systems to porcelains—a true design polymath who deep down didn’t subscribe to the slick, cold aesthetics of modernism.
“You can’t always live comfortably with his eccentric furniture, but you can’t write the history of late 20th-century art without it,” New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote about his work.
The fateful 1981 showing in Milan would redefine the rules of the design world; it caused total outrage among peers. Memphis furniture and house-ware used laminates, combined forms, exaggerated and impractical shapes, and humorous patterns. But the public loved it; clearly they were onto something. Soon, pieces became so sought after, so difficult to obtain, that their prices skyrocketed, making Memphis the ultimate 1980s status symbol.
In 1985, the New York Times wrote, “There is little doubt that some of the most influential furniture trends to come out of Italy in the last few years have been those of the Memphis group of designers and architects.” Another critic noted the style, “bears roughly the relationship to classic modernism that punk rock bears to Stravinsky.”
‘”We are reaching a barbaric age where all the fragments of a crystallized culture are broken into pieces: there are no main cultural streams,” Sottsass said at the time, explaining the group’s aesthetics and goals. Trendy young people flush with cash chased after the look, which was used by 1980s pop culture standbys like MTV, and made appearances in decor and sets from Pee Wee’s Playhouse to Wall Street to Beetlejuice. Part of the appeal today is how the visual style immediately conjures the 80s and all its “greed-is-good” flaws. The whole reason Memphis became a thing, after all, is that it was weird, new, and expensive—precisely what the decade’s newly minted yuppies were after.
However, that wasn’t the originators’ intention at all. The style saturated the marketplace—appearing everywhere from television to high fashion to coffee cups—and its founders splintered. Sottsass left by 1985, and the group fell apart in 1987 with many going on to disavow the look. By the 2000s, Sottsass no longer believed in the necessity for his most famous design contribution.
“Memphis is a phenomenon that arose out of cultural and political necessities that are no longer,” he told the Times in 2002. “There are moments when something happens, and then it’s over. Basta.’’ In the meantime, the style became dated and associated with the overpriced, tacky taste of a bygone era. However, the world of the 2010s clearly proves Memphis still has more to offer beyond what meets the eye. What might have looked like a flash in the pan was just the first wave.
Though the style seems nonsensical, Memphis was, simply, a reaction to the simple, clean lines of mid-century modernism. In contrast, Memphis used nonfunctional design: swerving, curling, squiggly forms, and celebrated so-called bad taste. The materials were cheap and not concerned with purity or authenticity. It wasn’t sleek or minimal or even useful. It was, in short, just fun.
The style is celebratory, funny, and zany. Picture rounded shapes in Pepto-Bismol pink, sunshine yellow laminates with black dashed patterns, and funky gizmos and gear. The designs were a manifestation of postmodernism for your living room—the jumbling together of signs, symbols, and histories into a new and different whole. Though Memphis was pre-Internet, the ethos fits right into the current digital era of mash-ups and image distortion with its celebration of hybrid forms and happiness. It’s a rebellious spirit expressed with goofiness, not unlike a meme.
When Sottsass died in 2007, at age 90, the group’s designs began to reemerge as important, iconic styles. Both then and now, the unique look has attracted high-profile fans, and in its rebirth, many reevaluated its history of proponents.
“People were hungry for color again,” Marc Benda of Friedman Benda, a Manhattan gallery showing Sottsass’ work, told the Guardian recently of the trend’s beginning, with its garishly bold hues.
The first devotees of the so-wrong-it’s-right aesthetic included those who went on to be iconic in their own right. Notably, the notoriously picky Chanel creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, was one of the very first buyers.
“It was love at first sight,” he told the Guardian about the design group and his first purchases. “I’d just got an apartment in Monte Carlo and I could only imagine it in Memphis. Now it seems very 1980s, but the mood will come back. The pretensions of minimalism made it difficult for Memphis in the 1990s, but I think Sottsass is one of the design geniuses of the 20th century.”
Lagerfeld is credited with helping launch the group’s fame. A young Anna Wintour also weighed in saying that furniture in general, “wasn’t a whole lot of fun until 1981, when the Memphis design group, based in Milan, brought out its first collection…a cheerful synthesis of historical allusion and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Sofia Coppola also counts herself a lifelong fan. “As a kid in the 80s, I was obsessed with Memphis design,” she wrote in W in 2014. “I remember poring over Barbara Radice’s book for inspiration. And while I did not live in a real Ettore Sottsass madhouse, my mom indulged my passion by allowing me to make fake Memphis dressers with gray squiggles on them for my bedroom.”
But it isn’t just celebrities reminiscing about their love of the style. In recent years, a Tennessee wedding photographer named Dennis Zanone built one of the most comprehensive collections of Memphis design in the US. (Lagerfeld sold his in the 90s.) His living room is an assemblage of the group’s greatest design hits: lamps, couches, tables, you name it.
“Memphis challenges the notion of form follows functions. It started out as conceptual, with Sottsass gathering the young designers together. Then it became commercial. It was not a satire,” Zanone told Artnews in 2015. “It’s a way to make you think differently about form and function…They all look impractical. None of them are.”
The style can be purchased easily today, from paper plates to bedspreads to phone cases, the quirky patterns and canvases of Memphis in their Day-Glo colors are readily available to anyone, anywhere, with the click of a button.
Look around and it’s not hard to notice that Memphis has been having a moment—a witty, irreverent romp for crazy times. On the other hand, the mismatched and combined look of the movement offers a kind of solution to how to piece a fragmented world together. So, in a way, it makes perfect sense why it’s seeing a celebration around the world.
It all kicked off again in the 2010s. Sotheby’s auction of David Bowie’s Memphis collection made more than $1.6 million dollars; companies from Supreme to BMW celebrated the group with collaborations and capsule collections. Notably, in 2017, the Met Breuer in New York—the modern and contemporary arm of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—staged the retrospective “Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical,” a gathering of six decades of Sottsass’ designs, marking the largest-ever showing of his work in New York.
“I thought Memphis may have died,” curator Christian Larsen told the Guardian. “It comes back into fashion every so often because it has that spirit of rebellion and freedom. It’s meant to scream at you. It celebrates diversity and the unorthodox. But Sottsass said it himself: it’s just like candy. Too much can make you sick.”
The very same year, on the opposite coast, MOCA Los Angeles opened “Naked is the Best Disguise,” a show of Memphis designer Peter Shire—best known for his splatter-painted mugs and handcrafted earthenware as well as his swooping, boldly colored Bel Air Chair (1981).
And various trend watchers have already noted that the white-marble craze will all but completely give way for spackle, a Memphis trend. Even millennial pink, the color that’s seemingly everywhere, takes its cue from Memphis. Ditto the neon-lit colors that are now flowing down fashion runways, from lime green to sunny yellow to lavender—all Memphis-approved.
Memphis has attracted the attention of the young as well, as the cobbled-together, mix-and-match vibes of the group see a reawakening through social media. The twentysomething art collector Raquel Cayre curates the Ettore Sottsass Instragram account and recently staged an exhibition of Memphis design alongside contemporary counterparts in a New York townhouse.
What seemed like a fad—even to its own designers—is just getting started.
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