The Memphis Design: The Origin Of The ’80s Aesthetic

Courtesy: @sooprun

When you picture a style or aesthetic to the 1980s what do you picture? It may be that image above – or ones like it – but what is it and where does it come from?

The Memphis design was created in 1981 by the Italian design and architecture group called the Memphis group. They were a collection of artists trying to break away from modernist design and create more radical designs that would end up creating the aesthetic of the 1980s.

Every decade seems to have its own aesthetic, you can picture the ‘70s with its brown and orange earth tones and hideous shag carpets. The ‘60s with all it’s kaleidoscope and flower power look and the 1980s with it’s bright, colorful and geometric shape filled look.

Even though you probably can’t name it you know very well what this design is. You probably had shirts, bedspreads, and school binders in this design. Your poster of Debbie Gibson or Corey Feldman probably contained some of these graphics and you no doubt watched it on T.V every day.

So let’s take a look at this Memphis design, the group that created it, and how it came to be the definitive look and aesthetic for the 1980s.

Listen up to the podcast version, or read on!

The Formation Of The Memphis Group

The Memphis group was an Italian collective lead by a guy named Ettore Sottsass. They came together in 1981 and would have a huge influence on the post-modern designs of the decade. The group contained many members from around the world and was made up of designers and architects.

The Memphis group had members from Japan, the U.K, Australia and more but were based in Milan, Italy. If you wondered why they were called Memphis, it had nothing to do with being in the U.S or Tennesse but came from a Bob Dylan song. One night when they had all got together someone put on Blonde on Blonde, a song of Bob Dylan’s from 1966. The song contained the lyrics:

Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again”

And voila! There’s your name.

They had been called one of the most influential groups of all time when it came to designing. And the fact they set the tone and style of an entire decade is proof of that.

The Creation Of The Memphis Design

Image courtesy of Dennis Zanone Studio

It’s important to point out that Memphis would come out of a long tradition of radical design that comes out of Italy in the 1960s. Radical Design was actually a movement that happened that was created in reaction to the minimal and very practical aspects that come from modernism.

Modernism is a little too cookie cutter for artists like this and it was seen as being put into a box with a lot of rules. With radical design, the designers could now break out of this box and play around with more abstract lines and not have to stay so minimal.

Sottsass was considered the godfather of “Italian cool” and the work of the Memphis group was considered groundbreaking. The incorporated a lot of geometric shapes and shapes that were on top of other shapes. It was abstract but to the Memphis group, they just wanted to do something that stood out. The haters of the day would often ridicule their work saying it had clashing colors, weird arrangements, and too many bright colors and laminated plastics.

Unveiling The Memphis Design To The World

In 1981 the group first put their work on display at the Salone del Mobile Milano which is also my Starbucks order.

The Salone del Mobile Milano was a design fair and they included all sorts of pieces including furniture. Each piece was given a name after a hotel such as “Sheraton” and “Bel Air”.

The Memphis group was creating a kind of “faux chic” by taking cheap materials and putting them over crappier fabrics and materials but giving them high-end names like the “Plaza vanity”.

The impact on the show was that some people loved it, it confused the living crap out of others but ultimately people were talking about it and there was “high excitement” in the air. The hype grew more and more so that the exhibition was becoming swarmed.

One of the Memphis group member riding to the exhibition in a cab thought there had been a terrorist attack because of all the people congregating together. Turns out it was just to see some unique art of his.

The Spread Of The Memphis Design & MTV

The Memphis group was a hit and the exhibition in Milan had further cemented them as inspirational artists and designers. You now started to see their work show up in magazines and then the aesthetic exploded. In a good way, not in the way my hopes and dreams do…

The spread of the Memphis design seemed to coincide right with the start of MTV in 1981. For you kids out there MTV was called “Music Television” and it’s what old people used to watch music videos on. What’s a music video you ask? Well, it’s basically a 3-minute movie where people with long hair and spandex play guitars that have sparks showering out of them and guys in white Adidas shoes kick down a wall.

You just have to look at the original logos for MTV and their video packages to see the Memphis design. Lots of colors, shapes and scratchy graphics were all influenced by that movement coming out of Italy.

MTV was flying by the seat of their pants at this time as the idea of playing music videos on T.V was kind of ridiculous. They would become one of the most iconic stations of all time and changed the way that we consume music. Bands who never considered how to present themselves either had to learn this new format or be left behind.

And as MTV grew so did their aesthetic which would help cement the Memphis design as the design of the ‘80s. This history of MTV is pretty fascinating and I wrote an article all about it here.

1986: The Pinnacle Of The Memphis Design?

“The Pee-wee Herman Show” on Broadway

Memphis design would show up in various ad campaigns and movies like Ruthless People so that, combined with it’s constant exposure on MTV, was making it more commonplace in the culture. A huge movement for Memphis design that cemented as an ‘80s aesthetic, especially for kids, came in 1986 and a wacky new kids show;

Pee Wees Playhouse.

Created by Paul Reubens Pee Wee Herman was a man child of sorts who lived in a very abstract world. Pee Wee made his big screen debut in 1985 in Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and he then moved to Saturday mornings in 1986 with Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

The show and movie had a campy/kitschy style to it and the T.V show combined some 1950s style along with the new Memphis style that was springing up everywhere. The images from the playhouse are probably still burned in your memory as it was like the Memphis style threw up all over your screen.

Pee Wee’s Playhouse wasn’t the only thing that embraced Memphis Style but it really helped to accentuate it. There are many others but here are a few more notable uses of Memphis style.

Pee-Wees Big Adventure would be a huge part of 1985 and makes the list of the top 19 things that made 1985 the best year of the decade.

1989: Saved By The Bell

We all know Saved By The Bell. The story of a Bayside High, the perfect high school in California. It came out in the late ‘80s but the opening credits and color scheme, throughout the show made great use of the now very familiar style of the 1980s.

The intro itself combined everything you might have seen at that original Salon del Mobile Milano exhibition from 1981. You’ve got the clashing colors, mix-matched geometric shapes, swirls, and other shapes all combined together. It incorporates some of that scratchy graphic look at the start of the intro in the same way MTV had used back in 1981.

To me, the intro of Saved By The Bell was trying to embrace this MTV culture and using something familiar that kids, and younger people, knew was geared towards them. MTV was not for their parents and as soon as you saw that Memphis style it was like code for a kid to know this was going to be right in their wheelhouse.

I think Saved By The Bell is the vehicle that brought Memphis style to iconic status because future generations would end up watching it, along with kids of the ‘80s, and will forever recognize that unique style to that time period.

Back To The Future 2

Courtesy: Universal Pictures

An obvious iconic movie that came out in the late ‘80s and made sure to embrace all things Memphis. It’s most notable in the Cafe ‘80s in the year 2015. Even though the movie was made during that time period they were aware to make a “novelty restaurant” in the future completely embrace this Memphis style.

The whole Cafe ‘80s scene is a perfect snapshot of the Memphis style and Back to the Future is part of my article on 12 things that made the 80s the greatest decade.

The Legacy Of The Memphis Design

The Memphis group started to disband around 1987. Due to the recession of that year spending money on art dropped and so did their potential for income. The Memphis group always had a big focus on furniture design but it never really caught on. It was extremely abstract and wouldn’t find a place in most houses that were going for fake wood wall paneling and orange shag carpet still.

The legacy they did leave was in the design which dominated in so many areas through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. From a design influence standpoint, they influenced many and still made its way into creations such as that first Apple watch shown above from 1995.

Memphis design would also show up in fashion shows and the pieces, and furniture was coveted by people like David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld. The style will still pop up every now and then and since it’s been 40 years you may see it make a comeback of sorts.

Either way, the Memphis design WAS the design that represented the ‘80s. You could ask anyone on the street, they probably don’t know its name but could certainly identify it.

If you’re looking for more sweet items and products from the 80s take a gander over at my resources page!

And if you want to get more epic 80s content like this, do yourself a solid and sign up for the Everything 80s email newsletter!