What Is Memphis Design? Everything You Need to Know About the '80s Trend That Never Really Left

Memphis Design

iStock / Getty Images Plus

Memphis Design is an influential and unapologetic postmodern style born in the '80s to a collaborative design group of architects and designers. While the name might lead you to believe Memphis Design Group got its start in Tennessee, it actually emerged from Milan, Italy. The name was inspired by the Bob Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, which played on repeat during the group's first meeting.

The newly anointed Memphis Group aimed to create a style that rebelled against the minimalism trends of the '70s and clean midcentury-modern lines of the '50s and '60s. Spearheaded by designer Ettore Sottsass, the trend now referred to as Memphis Design first debuted at the Milan Furniture Fair in 1981 with 55 ornamental pieces that infused geometric shapes reminiscent of the Art Deco movement with a bold Pop-Art-inspired color palette.

Memphis Design

Designer: Michelle Boudreau, Photo: Lance Gerber

The movement was designed to provoke an emotional response and was never intended to be timeless or mainstream. Driven by form before function, the polarizing style is recognized by its bold colors, clashing patterns, and radical approach to design.

Driven by form before function, the polarizing style is recognized by its bold colors, clashing patterns, and radical approach to design.

Not for the faint of heart, it continues to challenge the status quo with its fearless mishmash of styles. The striking use of monochrome grid patterns, geometric shapes of varying scales, overlaid by squiggly lines, and colorful Terrazzos, can be described as both kitsch and garish in the best way. If scenes of Saved By the Bell and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air come to mind, you're on the right track.

The movement did much more than inspire pop culture; it commanded the attention and following of some major tastemakers worldwide. When David Bowie's estate auctioned his art collection in 2016, it was revealed that he had collected more than 400 Memphis Design Group pieces since the '80s. Additionally, designer Karl Lagerfeld was also a fan and bought the entirety of Sottsass' first collection.

Although the trend was certainly alluring and gained a cult following, it was commercially rejected, which meant demand for the style began to dwindle fast. With that, the group was dismantled in 1988, after just six years. While Memphis Design was short-lived at the time, the nostalgic trend continues to inspire modern-day designs. 

Memphis Design Characteristics

  • Laminate and Terazzo Materials: Memphis designers used materials often found on floors to fabricate tables and décor accessories.
  • Squiggles: Designed by Sottsass in 1978, abstract squiggles, or the "Bacterio" print, is Memphis Design's trademark pattern.
  • Colorblocking: You won't find a solid-colored piece of furniture in Memphis Design. Think chairs with yellow seats, black legs, striped backs, and green arms.
  • Out-Of-The-Box Shapes: Memphis Design favors chunky geometric shapes like circles and triangles, and jagged edges, and asymmetrical configurations.
  • Bold Patterns: Repetitive geometric patterns made of triangles, squiggles, sharp zigzags, speckles, and dots in various contrasting colors are placed haphazardly, contributing to its chaotic aesthetic.
  • Black and White Stripes: Memphis Design uses starkly contrasted black and white stripes to playfully complement clashing color palettes of bright, neon, and pastel shades. 

Shop Memphis Design

Decades later, the influential design style remains as prominent as ever. From wall decals to furniture, and décor accessories, shop '80s inspired pieces to add to any modern space.

Dusen Dusen x Areaware Tissue Box
Dusen Dusen x Areaware Everybody Tissue Box Holder $35.00

Something as simple as a tissue box can don an '80s Memphis-Design whimsy. The achromatic stripes paired with bright magenta and pastel purple hues to form an abstract face are distinct elements of the telltale style.

Memphis Wall Decal
MemphisPat Memphis Milano Wall Decal, Geometric Wall Sticker $43.00

If you're looking to create an ambiance reminiscent of Saved By The Bell's diner, The Max, this wall decal is just the place to start. The geometric shapes piled on one another are a dead giveaway for the nostalgic trend.

Blue Doodle Mug
Recreation Center Blue Doodle Mug $46.00

Sip in Memphis-Design style when you add this mug to your kitchen cupboard. The mismatched terrazzo colors, paired with Sottsass' "Bacterio" print and a pink handle, feels like a blast from the past.

Milking Stool
Workaday Handmade Striped Milking Stool $1,100.00

The starkly contrasting black and white stripes on this playful stool would complement a variety of color palettes from bright, neon, and pastel shades. Additionally, the oddly shaped legs are undeniably inspired by the famous movement.

Memphis Milano Coffee Table
Decori Memphis Milano Coffee Table $199.00

Enter the statement coffee table of your Memphis Design dreams. The angular design on the surface screams retro-cool, while the minimal shape and legs feel modern enough to fit into any living room space.