When you hear “Memphis,” you might think of Tennessee. Or a particular style of bbq. Or maybe Memphis, Egypt; Memphis, Texas; Memphis, New York; or the 2013 Boz Scaggs album, Memphis.
Now you might. It’s rather unforgettable.
The Memphis Group was an Italian design & architecture firm founded in 1981 by Ettore Sottsass. Sottsass was in his 60s and his collaborators–who included Martine Bedin, Aldo Cibic, Michele De Lucchi, Matteo Thun and Marco Zanini–were all in their 20s. Barbara Radice, a writer, was also involved. George Sowden and Nathalie du Pasquier later joined, as well.
The Milan-based group designed “postmodern” furniture, fabric, ceramics, glass, and metal objects until 1987. Their style was defined by bold use of color and asymmetrical shapes and drew inspiration from Art Deco, Pop Art, Kitsch, and Futurism. Their goal was to experiment with unconventional materials, like plastic laminates, and liberate themselves from soulless design.
Oh, and their collaborative name, The Memphis Group? That was inspired by a Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” which they had listened to repeatedly throughout their first meeting on December 11, 1980. From the rock n’ roll of American suburbs to the Pharaohs of Egypt, the name fit. And it stuck. That is how Italy got its very own Memphis and put Sottsass into international fame.
You can view Memphis design as a
kind of counterculture movement for which postmodernism is often associated with, where emphasis lies in defying conventions and rejecting a rational order. The geometric shapes, squiggles, and overly saturated/contrasting color palette were a far cry from anything tasteful. Nothing about Memphis is elegant. In the eyes of graphic design, it’s obtrusive and illegible. From an architectural design standpoint, it’s just plain odd…and weirdly uncomfortable. But when you want to reject the clean, minimal lines of the slick 70s aesthetic, where else do you have left to go?
If you’re looking for something to compare it to, think along the lines of Delia Deetz’s interior design in Beetlejuice, or maybe Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, or even the squiggles from the Rugrats opening sequence. If you’re inclined to think it’s visually similar to kindergarteners with building blocks, you’re probably not wrong with that comparison, either. SFGATE has called it “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price,” and even Sottsass acknowledged its overwhelming nature:
Memphis is like a very strong drug; you cannot take too much. It’s like eating only cake.
Memphis is for those of us who want our cake every day and aren’t afraid of a cavity or two.
Memphis design was polarizing. Unsurprisingly, people tended to either love it or hate it.
The group was active for only a short span of time: they produced and exhibited their designs annually from 1981 until 1988. Sottsass left in 1985, and the Memphis Group disbanded in 1991. It was sensational in and outside of the design community–Memphis was a manifestation of the obscure early-postmodern that played well with the media in an era dominated by post-punk.
While Memphis design is clearly evocative of the 80s, and has that instantaneous connection with its era, stylistically it became more popular (at least in the mainstream) in the 90s. The bold colors, geometric shapes, and abstract patterns really became a part of 90s fashion, architecture, furniture, household items, and interior design.
Whether Memphis design is experiencing a revival is a bit of debate–some don’t really believe that it ever left at all. But even if revival isn’t the best term for whatever is happening, the styles put forth by Ettore Sottsass and the other members of the Memphis Group are certainly making their way deeper and deeper into the 21st century.
The notion of “kitsch” is rather trendy now. Sure, you could say the eclectic mismatching of furniture and the intentional mixing of clothes patterns is simply a product of the ongoing “hipster” trend popularized by millennials, but the disregard for clean lines, elegance, and design “rules” is directly out of the Memphis handbook. So even if we got here unintentionally (or rather, never left the rebellious mindset of 80s and Memphis design), there is that connection.
You don’t have to go full on Memphis Group to add some rule-breaking to your home.
The easiest way is to grab some bold paint colors. You could start out simple by just doing an accent wall. Buy some furniture in unusual shapes and colors. If you’re looking for some inspiration, Ikea might be a good place to start. From bright yellow dining chairs to geometric comforters, and almost-chartreuse side tables that aren’t too far off from Pantone’s Color of the Year, you can definitely get some inspiration to bring some disorder into your interior design.
If you want something with even more character, consider thrifting. You never know what you’re going to find once you enter the realm of repurposing furniture. Rather than restoring that end table to its former oaky glory, why not go wild by painting every leg a different color? If you can’t commit to Memphis to that extent, you can start off even smaller by just adding some Modern art to your walls or even simply purchasing mismatched/different color dinnerware. Bright colored pottery is really trendy right now.
When it doubt, maybe this will serve as some inspiration for child’s bedroom or playroom!
For more information on Memphis, and to see original designs, be sure to check out Memphis-Milano.
“Room view of part of a Memphis-Milano design collection” by Dennis Zanone is licensed under CC by SA 3.0
Sarah is a content writer and social media assistant with a BA in literature/creative writing from Wilkes University. When she’s not spending her days at work writing, reading, and drinking coffee, she’s usually at home reading, writing, and drinking coffee. She also devotes a fair amount of time to HGTV, drawing, and doting on her dog. As a creator, Sarah believes in emphasizing personality through design and DIY projects.