What is the Memphis Design Movement?
The Memphis design movement refers to a style of decoration and furniture created by the Memphis Group, an Italian design collective founded in Milan in 1981. The Memphis design style is characterized by postmodern designs featuring bold colors, geometric shapes, squiggly lines, and an unconventional and eclectic mix of materials. The Memphis Group’s debut exhibition in 1981 marked the official launch of the radical and innovative Memphis design movement.
The Memphis design philosophy rejected the minimalist modernism of the 1970s in favor of bringing decoration and ornamentation back into design. Memphis designs combined pop culture references and aesthetic inspiration from movements like Art Deco and Pop Art. The Memphis movement favored expressive, loud, and colorful decor over subdued, monochromatic schemes.
At its core, the Memphis design movement represented a bold, fresh perspective that wasn’t afraid to break design rules and challenge traditional notions of good taste. The rebellious spirit and irreverent humor of the Memphis Group were embodied in their furniture and interior designs. An interior designer in London could draw inspiration from the eclectic Memphis aesthetic when approaching projects.
When Did the Memphis Design Movement Start?
The Memphis design movement originated in Milan, Italy in 1981 when the Memphis Group debuted their radical furniture and interior designs at the Arc ’74 gallery. The Memphis Group was founded by Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass along with young designers including Michele de Lucchi, George Sowden, and Martin Lambie-Nairn.
Sottsass is credited for bringing together this group of creative talents and providing artistic direction. The name “Memphis” was supposedly inspired by the 1966 Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Sottsass chose the word Memphis for its associations with ancient Egyptian history and the city’s soul and pop music scene.
The 1981 Memphis exhibition was provocatively titled “New International Style” and challenged the minimalist, function-driven International Style that had dominated contemporary design. The debut exhibit featured unconventional pieces like the Carlton Room Divider by Ettore Sottsass and the Beverly Cabinet by Micheal Graves.
The audacious and whimsical designs generated excitement and attracted attention from both admirers and critics. The opening of the 1981 show marks the beginning of the revolutionary Memphis design movement.
The Memphis Group’s Debut of Their Designs
The Memphis Group officially debuted their radical furniture and interior designs at the Arc ’74 gallery in Milan, Italy in September 1981. The exhibition titled “New International Style” served as the launch for the new postmodern Memphis style that would shake up the design world.
The Memphis Group was co-founded by Ettore Sottsass and included young Italian architects and designers like Michele de Lucchi, Marco Zanini, and Martine Bedin. For the debut exhibition, each member contributed unconventional pieces featuring bold colors, playful shapes, and an eclectic mix of materials like plastic laminate and metal.
Notable Memphis designs unveiled at the 1981 show included Sottsass’ own Carlton Room Divider made of brightly colored wood and laminate, Michael Graves’ Beverly Cabinet, and Peter Shire’s Bel Air Armchair. The prescient use of synthetic materials and pop-inspired graphics pointed toward a new direction in contemporary design.
The exhibition was both ridiculed and praised for its irreverent challenge to modernist traditions. While some dismissed the work as kitsch, the Memphis Group’s premiere helped usher in a new era of experimental postmodern design that embraced decoration and pushed aesthetic boundaries. The 1981 show announced the Memphis style as an exciting new design movement.
An interior designer in London could take cues from the Memphis Group’s bold use of color, shape, and unusual materials to create unique interiors.
Characteristics of Memphis Design Style
The Memphis design style is defined by several key aesthetic characteristics, including:
- Bold, contrasting colors like turquoise, purple, yellow and red
- Geometric shapes like cubes, cones, spheres, and zigzags
- Graphic patterns such as stripes, squiggles, and grids
- Abstract artistic designs lacking symmetry
- Eclectic mix of materials like plastic laminate, glass, metal
- Layered, asymmetrical compositions
- Postmodern pastiche of decorative and fine art influences
- Rebellious, anti-minimalist spirit that broke design rules
Memphis designers celebrated loud colors, eye-catching patterns, and a collage of shapes and textures. Their work merged pop culture imagery with historic design references. Memphis pieces often feature neo-Classical forms rendered in plastic laminate and chrome tubing.
The Memphis aesthetic combines serious artistic ideas with humor and whimsy. The fluid shapes and irregular patterns create a visual energy and exude playfulness. By breaking conventional rules, the Memphis style paved the way for more creative freedom in design.
Important Figures in Memphis Design
Some of the key members of the Memphis Group who shaped the Memphis design movement include:
- Ettore Sottsass – The founder of the Memphis Group, Sottsass was the leader who established the Memphis design philosophy. An established industrial designer and architect, his work like the 1981 Carlton Room Divider epitomized the Memphis style.
- Michael Graves – His postmodern furniture designs like the Team Chair and Beverly Cabinet exemplified the Memphis aesthetic. Graves combined classical forms with pop graphics and absurd colors.
- Michele De Lucchi – De Lucchi’s work includes signature Memphis pieces like the Kristall Lamp and First Chair. His angular furniture incorporated plastic laminate with metal framework.
- George Sowden – Sowden’s Gomma Lamp and Sideboard showcase Memphis principles. His forward-thinking work incorporated new materials and production methods.
- Nathalie Du Pasquier – As a painter and textile designer, she crafted expressive fabric patterns and graphics for Memphis furniture. Her designs contributed to the movement’s visual language.
- Peter Shire – His Bel Air Chair and Hi-Lo Table display his lively, papercraft-inspired aesthetic. Shire helped extend the Memphis style beyond furniture into ceramics and sculpture.
Influences Behind Memphis Design
The postmodern Memphis design style arose as a reaction against the minimalist, functionalist design ethos of previous decades. However, the movement drew inspiration from various 20th century avant-garde art and design sources, including:
- Pop Art – The Memphis Group channeled Pop Art’s focus on consumer culture, bold colors, and playful abstraction in their furniture and decor. The superficial, fun spirit of Pop informed the Memphis attitude.
- Art Deco – Memphis designers borrowed the sleek geometric shapes, bright palette, and lavish ornamentation of 1920s Art Deco style. This historic reference added nostalgic allure.
- Arte Povera – This 1960s Italian art movement that incorporated commonplace materials influenced the eclectic Memphis mix of laminates, metals, and plastics.
- Postmodernism – Memphis design exemplified postmodernism’s use of stylistic collage and irreverent humor to rebel against modernist conventions.
- Punk – Memphis embodied punk rock’s anarchic energy and subversion of traditional aesthetics through chaotic shapes and clashing colors.
By amalgamating these various influences in an innovative way, the Memphis Group developed a fresh design vocabulary that challenged ordinary notions of beauty and good taste.
Notable Memphis Pieces and Products
The most iconic examples of Memphis design include:
- Carlton Room Divider – Ettore Sottsass’ 1981 laminate room divider with colorful stacked cubicles epitomized the Memphis style.
- Beverly Cabinet – Michael Graves’ cabinet featuring laminate panels with geometric cutouts displayed postmodern exuberance.
- Kristall Lamp – Michele de Lucchi’s angular floor lamp in clear and colored perspex exemplified Memphis lines and materials.
- Bel Air Chair – Peter Shire’s compact armchair clad in a patchwork of plastic laminate embodied Memphis irreverence.
- First Chair – De Lucchi’s modular chair made from plastic, metal, and foam showcased a kitschy yet artsy aesthetic.
- Gomma Lamp – George Sowden’s plastic and chrome lamp with a bold red bulb cover became an iconic Memphis piece.
These daring furnishings with their arbitrary shapes, illogical details, and riotous color combinations encapsulated the creative spirit and visual daring of the Memphis design approach.
Memphis Graphic Design
The bold, graphic aesthetic extended beyond three-dimensional Memphis furniture into vibrant textile prints, book covers, posters, and other graphics. Notable contributors included:
- Nathalie Du Pasquier – Her vibrant, expressive textile patterns adorned Memphis furniture. Du Pasquier’s paintings also incorporated the movement’s aesthetic.
- Matteo Thun – His iconic Memphis logos and advertisements featuring abstract figures, shapes, and squiggles defined the group’s visual identity.
- Marina Schinz – Schinz designed lively fabric prints along with Memphis book covers and posters that pulsed with color and geometric motifs.
- Barry Newbourne – His Memphis identity design for the Swatch Watch company helped disseminate the style. Newbourne also created dynamic typography and graphics.
These designers expanded Memphis style from physical products into the graphic realm where flat, two-dimensional patterns and colors could be deployed to vivid effect. Their bold graphics remain icons of postmodern style.
The Memphis Legacy
While the original Memphis Group disbanded by the late 1980s, the provocative style catalyzed new design developments. Memphis made a resurgence in the 2010s, inspiring the works of contemporary creators like Jaime Hayon and Nathalie Du Pasquier’s textile revivals. Memphis design’s signature traits can be seen today in furniture, prints, album covers, and more.
By challenging conventional good taste, Memphis design opened the door to more artistic freedom and inventiveness in decoration. Their disregard of design rules brought irreverent personality and whimsy back into postmodern design. The movement’s marriage of fine art ideas with pop culture eclecticism created a model for injecting expressive spirit into products.
With its colorful audacity and anarchic energy, Memphis design made an indelible mark on late 20th century aesthetic sensibilities. Their style captured the vibrant, subversive mood of the era and fostered a creative spirit that still feels fresh and inspiring today. The Memphis legacy continues to seduce with its crazy colors, cheeky humor, and idiosyncratic allure.