The aesthetic of the 1980s was loud and colorful: Clothes, furniture, and advertising were splashed in cartoonish pinks, blues, and greens, along with wild patterns, such as splattered paint and zebra stripes.
This distinct look was shaped by a small but influential collective of designers called the Memphis Group. It is not particularly well-known outside of design circles. But an exhibit at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany celebrating the 40th anniversary of the group’s founding wants to change this. The show presents furniture, architectural design sketches, and artwork that illustrate the group’s enduring impact on art and design. “While the aesthetics of our current moment are different from those of the Memphis Group, there are many aspects of their philosophy that are more relevant than ever,” says Mateo Kries, the museum’s director, who curated this exhibition.
Everything about the Memphis Group was quirky. The Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass first convened his fellow designers at the end of 1980. At that meeting, he played, on repeat, the Bob Dylan tune “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” which is how the group got its name. There was method to the madness: Their brash, idiosyncratic approach was a reaction against the impersonal coldness of the modernists that came before them.
Over the next seven years, Sottsass brought together designers from around the world, including Michael Graves from the United States, Shiro Kuramata from Japan, Nathalie Du Pasquier from France, and Michele de Lucchi from Italy. These young designers were frustrated by the minimalism and functionality that dominated design over the previous decades. To them, these facets of the design industry were created by corporations eager to churn out products that consumers would find trendy and useful. They found the notion of “good taste” equally problematic, since it was often a concept that was pushed out by brands. Ironically, brands and corporations eagerly embraced the Memphis Group’s aesthetics over the following decades—of course, without embracing the beliefs that undergirded them.
To push back against the dominant design paradigm of the time, members of the Memphis Group flocked to aesthetic sensibilities that seemed, on the surface, drawn from everyday middle-class life. Their color palettes and silhouettes looked like they popped out of a comic book: Furniture featured simple geometric silhouettes and bright primary colors. Lamps featured arcs of bare light bulbs that looked like something you might find in an American diner. The group loved applying colorful plastic laminate to pieces to make them look like a children’s toy. “It forced people to reconsider what society deems beautiful,” says Kries.
Looking back, it’s easy to see how this aesthetic shaped the look of the ’80s and ’90s. MTV videos from the era, shows like Saved by the Bell, and Nike sneakers all feature similar color schemes and geometric shapes. The Memphis Group helped usher in an era of maximalism after a period of minimalism.
In recent years, this look has made a comeback. Target now sells Memphis-inspired rugs with geometric patterns, Wayfair sells colorful Memphis bedding, and sneaker brands from Fila to Puma are bringing back chunky sneakers that capture the Memphis look.
Its popularity today isn’t surprising. Minimalism sprang from a homogenous, Eurocentric idea of beauty, whereas maximalism embraces a mishmash of global influences. The notion of a singular definition of “good taste” is horribly dated at a time when America is more diverse than ever.
Indeed, one reason Sottsass liked the name Memphis was that it conjured up two radically different cities: the one in Tennessee and the ancient capital of Egypt. It reflected his desire to take inspiration from many corners of the world and many periods of history.
Ultimately, Kries believes the most important part of the Memphis Group’s work wasn’t the aesthetic it created. It was the belief that designers shouldn’t be tools of industry. Sottsass himself had worked for Olivetti, an electronics company, where he helped create office equipment, typewriters, and furniture. But as time went on, he felt dissatisfied using his talents to create highly functional products designed to sell well on the market; it made him feel too much like a cog in the machine of capitalism. That’s why the Memphis Group didn’t focus much on functionality and ease of production. “They tended to make these pieces in small batches, rather than mass-producing them,” Kries says. “They didn’t like the idea that designers were contributing to the culture of overconsumption.”
Four decades after the Memphis Group convened, the world is hurtling toward environmental catastrophe. Many experts believe that the only way to avert the most devastating effects of climate change is to curb overconsumption and overproduction. The underlying philosophy of these designers was prescient. Designers today who are frustrated that their work is all about getting people to buy more and more products could take a page from the Memphis playbook and use their skills not to serve big companies, but to create beautiful, enduring objects.
In 1987, the members of the Memphis Group suddenly parted ways. “They had said what they wanted to say,” Kries says. “So they decided to move on.” The short-lived existence of the group, coupled with its abrupt ending, is perhaps the reason why its history is not widely known outside the world of design aficionados. But the designers’ work lives on, both in the aesthetics that fill our lives as well as their optimistic philosophy that overconsumption isn’t inevitable.