When you think of interior and graphic design from the 1980s, what comes to mind? Geometric black and white patterns? Squiggly lines in primary colors? Zany patterns in loud color combos? While these design elements might just seem like part of the spirit of the decade, they’re actually all connected to a larger design movement. It’s called Memphis design, and it’s a style that had a huge impact on the culture of the 80s and beyond.
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David Bowie was an avid collector of Memphis pieces—the dining table pictured above was his!
But Memphis is much more than that ubiquitous “look” of the 80s. It was a design movement that changed the way the industry thought. And in the past several years it’s shown up all over the place, in new formats and through new applications. Memphis design style is quite popular today, and it’s possible you’ve seen Memphis-inspired designs without realizing it—in celebrity homes, in the fashion industry, in retail concepts and restaurant design.
With 1980s-inspired design trends returning to the popular consciousness in the last couple of years, we thought it was time to take a deeper look at this iconic style. So we talked to Modsy’s resident design historian, VP of Style Alessandra Wood, to learn more about Memphis interior design—both its history and impact. Read on to get the scoop on this zany, groundbreaking 80s interior design style, and learn more about how it’s showing up in the design world today!
What is Memphis Design?
“Memphis style is a postmodern design movement that developed in reaction to the modern designs of the mid-century,” says Alessandra. “It’s a fun and frivolous style that doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
The way that this style uses colors—a lot of primary colors, along with some pastels—makes it feel youthful and lighthearted. Patterns are also a huge part of this style—from geometric shapes like circles and triangles to terrazzo, squiggles, lightning bolts, and spirals.
80s MTV logos featuring a variety of Memphis-inspired patterns.
“Memphis design pushed boundaries—pushing the design world into new frontiers,” says Alessandra. “In the postmodern movement, especially out of Italy, designers were challenging the forms that came before them.” And the way these designers used shapes was a huge part of that. 80s Memphis design style was unlike anything the design world had ever seen.
And yet, there were elements that were subtle nods to the past. “Designers in the Memphis movement were actively trying to go against what came before them, but they were also making references to the past,” Alessandra adds The geometric shapes they used referenced Art Deco design of the 1920s and the vibrant color palette was borrowed from the Pop Art movement of the 1950s.
Where did this design style come from?
“In the 80s, huge cultural shifts were taking place in Europe and America,” Alessandra explains. “The US had a really strong economy that was rebounding after the recession in the 70s, and there was a new wave of wealth that came into play.” People were revelling in new technology and were looking toward the future with excitement.
Members of the Memphis group gathered on the Tawaraya Boxing Ring, designed by Studio Azzurro in 1981
Enter: The Memphis Group
In late 1980, Italian designer Ettore Sottsass gathered a group of designers at his apartment in Milan. They started by simply sharing inspiration, bouncing ideas off of each other, and getting feedback on their sketches.
But, in their excitement of the concepts they were creating, they decided to develop a collection of furniture and decor, which they showed at an exhibition in 1981. This collective of designers formalized their connection and shared aesthetic, dubbing themselves the Memphis Group.
Fun fact: The name “Memphis” seems odd for a group of Italian designers. But it comes from Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” which the group was listening to at their initial gathering.
The iconic Carlton bookcase, designed by Ettore Sottssas in 1981, is probably the most recognizable and widely known piece of design from the Memphis movement.
Taking Design to the Next Level
The furniture and decor the Memphis Group created was unlike anything that had been made before. “It was a counter-movement against the very minimal and modern design of the mid-century,” says Alessandra. “They were looking to create designs that were lighthearted, funny, futuristic, surprising, and—most of all—pushing against the trends of the day.”
They rejected the trends of the past—but at the same time, they did borrow or make reference to certain elements from the past, which gave their zany pieces a look that had a sense of familiarity. “They were very intentional about their use of youthful colors, shapes, and patterns,” says Alessandra. “The Memphis Group took design to the next level, with the intent of bringing this playful spirit to the forefront of popular culture.”
Their actual furniture designs never widely made their way into people’s homes—but the overall style entered pop culture in a way that solidified its popularity, inspiring a lot of design that we’re familiar with from the 80s.
How are we seeing this look show up in design today?
Though Sottsass officially dismantled the Memphis Group in 1988, the Memphis vibe has lived on in various ways ever since. It’s an aesthetic that has infiltrated fashion, architecture, product design (see: the original Apple watch from the mid-90s), retail concepts, television and movie sets (think: Pee Wee’s Playhouse and “The Max” from Saved by the Bell), and so much more. The bright colors, bold graphic prints, and vibrant patterns have been applied in so many different ways since the 80s.
“Today, we’re seeing elements of Memphis design in retail and public spaces,” says Alessandra. One element of Memphis style that’s become quite a trend in the past couple of years? Terrazzo. “It’s a current trend that has a similar ‘soul’ to Memphis,” says Alessandra. Depending on the colors used in the terrazzo pattern, “it can elicit thoughts of confetti or sprinkles, which speaks to the playful, almost celebratory feeling that Memphis design creates.”
But we’re also seeing pop culture icons latch onto the zaniness of this style. Exhibit A: Miley Cyrus’ 80s glam home. It has some blatant references to Memphis design in some of the rooms—including a Memphis original. In her glam-room lounge, she has a Carlton bookcase, designed by Sottsass in 1981. But the playful and over-the-top style found throughout her home captures the playful spirit of the design movement.
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What’s the lasting impact of the Memphis Design movement?
“What I see as the lasting impact of the Memphis design movement is the ability for designers to take themselves less seriously,” says Alessandra. “The way they created also acted as an invitation for people to be less serious in how they design their spaces.”
“In the 80s, the Memphis Group was Introducing moments of quirkiness and fun into interior design,” she adds. “We’re seeing that sensibility in design today in the way that GenZ and some Millennials before them, are feeling the freedom to add quirkiness to their home’s design.”
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You’ll Know it’s Memphis Design When You See…
Furniture and Decor With Playful Forms
Pieces designed with the Memphis aesthetic feel fresh and different. The forms are non-traditional—some might even say wild and wacky! They tend to be fluid and have a sense of movement and playfulness to them.
Squiggle patterns, also known as the Bacterio print, was actually designed by Sottsass and quickly became Memphis’s trademark pattern. It’s a pattern that comes to mind for many people when they think of 80s graphic design, and it’s often used in conjunction with other patterns.
A Bold Use of Color
Whether it’s the primary colors mixed together or softer, pastel colors like seafoam green and light purple, the name of the game is bold. These colors are used in prints and patterns, offering even more visual boldness. And these color schemes are often accented with pops of black for contrast.
Visual References to the Past—With a Twist
Even though Memphis interior design was all about looking to the future, the iconic Memphis pieces all had some allusions to the past. But those references were always a twist on the original—reinterpreting a popular visual or cultural reference point from the past. Some examples? The Proust Armchair by Alessandro Mendini is an iconic example. Mendini was a member of the Memphis Group—but he actually designed the Proust Armchair in the late 70s as he began exploring postmodernism and the idea of REdesign. The armchair is inspired by 18th-century Rococo style—but the wooden frame is hand-painted in bright colors with a pointillism technique, and it’s upholstered in a matching fabric. The result is a bold chair that captures the heart and soul of the Memphis movement. Sottsass’s Casablanca Shelf is another great example of a piece designed with visual references to the past. The design was inspired by Victorian-era hall shelves but is given more modern lines and finished in that quintessential Memphis style.
Black and White Patterns Galore
Graphic, high-contrast black and white patterns—especially patterns that feature geometric shapes and squiggles—were a major element in the Memphis design movement. And these bold patterns in black and white show up a lot in today’s take on Memphis style.
Laminate and Terrazzo Used on More Than Just Floors
Before the 80s, laminate and terrazzo were materials used in flooring. But the Memphis Group gave these materials new applications, making tables and lamps out of these two materials. Today, you can still find tons of laminate furniture on the market. And terrazzo? It’s a pattern that’s been applied to just about everything, from tables and lamps to notebooks, art prints, pillows, mugs, and so much more.