Trend Alert: 1980s Memphis Design

By on May 2, 2016 in Design Trends
Trend Alert: 1980s Memphis Design

Memphis sounds like a perfectly normal name for a design movement. If it had been founded in the United States. But it wasn't. Instead, a few whimsical Italian furniture designers were listening to Bob Dylan when the name suddenly clicked — and it has certainly stuck. So what is this Memphis Design style that seems to be popping up everywhere, and where did it come from? Get ready for another design trend report. We'll cover:

  1. What the trend looks like
  2. How it's being used in various design fields
  3. How you can start using it today

Memphis Design: Basic Facts

It's December of 1980 and an architect/designer called Ettore Sottsass rallies his group of creative friends for a meeting. Picture this song playing in the background:

So, yes, we're in Milan. But, no, this wasn't a very Italian move: let's take everything people consider "wrong" in design and make a badass movement that celebrates unrestricted creative exploration. Let's rebel against the uniform, slick, minimalist aesthetic of the 70s and stand for something radical instead. Memphis and the Sottsass Associati group were born.

At its core, Memphis was drawing inspiration from a few existing design movements, which you'll spot throughout:

  • Art Deco: in its appreciation of striking geometric figures
  • Pop Art: evident in their use of bold color palettes
  • 1950’s Kitsch: a total departure from the constrained, minimalist design of the 70s

The movement became so influential that the Wall Street Journal recently reported a resurgence of a certain "neo-Memphis" aesthetic, claiming that "for many postmillennial designers around the globe, Memphis is a major source of inspiration". In this new wave, however, designers are opting for higher quality materials like metals and marble instead of plastic.

memphis-design-11Pin ItA collection of objects by Memphis, via Wikimedia Commons — CC BY-SA 3.0.

Caution: Memphis Isn't Here to Please Everyone

Naturally, most of the pieces designed by this (primarily) furniture-driven design group seemed bizarre and quite shocking. No wonder Karl Lagerfield decided to pioneer the style and decorated his entire apartment like a full-on Memphis playground.

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SFGate recently called Memphis "a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price."

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Photos by Jacques Schumacher. Read more at We Heart.

Rebellious and daring, Memphis has been called all sorts of things. SFGate recently called it "a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price" — which, to be honest, isn't too far from reality. Using 80s pop culture references, Gizmodo also described Memphis as "Pee-Wee's Playhouse meets Miami Vice. It's Saved By The Bell plus Beetlejuice."

The Memphis Design Trend

Memphis in Graphic and Print Design

A pastel Memphis-inspired color palette and layout is evident in this poster designed by Carmen Nácher:

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Swoon over this set of pocket notebooks by Officemilano:

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Cover design for Novum Magazine. More about the project here.

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Memphis in Fashion Design

In 2014, original Memphis group member Nathalie du Pasquier designed a line for American Apparel:

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Christian Dior has also explored Memphis design elements inspired by the group's various furniture products:

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The list of fashion designers working with Memphis-inspired prints in 2016 is pretty endless. Just take a look at Edeline Lee's ready-to-wear Spring 2016 collection:

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Photo via Vogue.

Memphis in Web Design

The geometric and colorful spirit of Memphis was used in this credit card checkout flow by Diane Lindquist:

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Designer Nate Tate created this set of Memphis-inspired icons for one of his client's projects:

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And of course we couldn't help it either:

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Memphis in Interior Design

Designer Camille Walala is a contemporary representative of everything the Memphis design aesthetic stands for. She has worked with artists like Katy Perry and brands like Urban Outfitters. More about her and her "Walala In Da House" exhibition in this Fast Company article.

memphis-design-Camille-Walala-London-Design-festival-2015-photo-by-Little-Big-Bell1Pin It

memphis-design-Camille-Walala-London-Design-festival-photo-by-Little-big-Bell1Pin It

Upholstery and textile design company Atelier Kobalt released these Memphis-inspired textile designs for their Summer '15 collection.

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Aldo's 2015 Holiday installation, designed by Leta Sobierajski.

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How to Get Started with Memphis Design

We've already gone over the main elements, inspiration sources and intentions behind the Memphis movement. How do we bring that all together to design something that plays with this whimsical, rebellious aesthetic? I suggest thinking about it in terms of three components, and you'll find valuable design resources to bring each of them to life:

Pin it for later!

Memphis-Design-PinPin It

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  1. Almost better than my morning coffee - what a vibrant, exciting trend :) Learned so much - thanks for this resource!

  2. I tend to like cooler colors than vibrant, but I must admit I kind of like this trend and would love to see where it goes in our modern design culture. Makes me think of my childhood for some reason even though I was born in the 90s

  3. Definitely feels like the 1980s to me... reminds me somewhat of Collier Campbell although they are different again, very painterly. Maybe it's the geometric elements that remind me of them.

  4. I guess I am the only low brow person that could only think of Pee Wees Playhouse the whole time I looked at that. lol

  5. This is awesome!!!
    I like this article very much. May I have a chance to translate this blog into Chinese?
    Bcoz it's also popular in Taiwan!!!! I do hope this resource can share with more and more people. Looking forward to hearing your reply :)

  6. I think motion graphics already had elements of Memphis design for the past few years, and it's been a trend for a long time to add thick lines with rounded endcaps, and wavy lines. What started the whole trend is "flat" Swedish design becoming popular again, and our obsession with the 80s, then 90s.

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