How this major design trend is reviving the bold colours and geometric patterns of the 1980s. Described by one critic as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”, the Memphis design aesthetic embodies the 1980s in so many ways: colourful, kitsch and garish. In recent years it’s come back into fashion in a big way, so what can we learn from this major design trend?
Simple geometric shapes; flat colours combined in bold, contrasting palettes; stylised graphic patterns defined by black-and-white stripes and abstract squiggles – these are the ingredients of Memphis-inspired design, fuelled by influences from earlier movements such as Pop Art and Art Deco.
How the Memphis Group began
The Memphis Group was a collaborative design group founded by Italian designer Ettore Sottsass, with its roots in furniture design – it made its influential debut at the Milan furniture fair in 1981. But it was relatively short-lived as an actual collective, closing down after just six years.
Colourful abstract shaped Ashoka Lamp
Designed by Memphis Group founder Ettore Sottsass in 1981, the striking Ashoka Lamp is made from lacquered metal
Memphis Group products were never intended to be timeless, or to have mainstream appeal. They were a statement; a protest against the neutral, understated and functional Modernism that preceded them. Here was a passionate movement driven by form, not function – designed to provoke an emotional response.
Not all those responses were positive. Memphis Group products were much-derided by critics at the time for being ugly, expensive and impractical. Many assumed the movement was a brief flash in the pan. Few would have predicted its ultimate cultural impact, or the revival of the aesthetic three decades on.
The modern Memphis design trend
After the collective shut down, many of its members continued practicing individually. Sottsass himself was a successful postmodernist architect, and it was only after his death in 2007 that interest in the Memphis design aesthetic was re-awakened in a big way.